e g r e g o r e s

"Graciously bestow upon all men felicity, the summit of which is the knowledge of the Gods." [Julian, Oration to the Mother of the Gods]

Category Archives: Pagan Monotheism (falsely so called)

"There is no monotheism in Homer or Pindar or Aeschylus or Herodotus; there was certainly none in cult." ("The Totality of the Gods", Part Deux)

“Taking one by one every Greek author who lived and wrote before 350 B.C., he shows by quotation of parallel passages, as often as possible from a single work of the author concerned, that again and again (ho) theos and (hoi) theoi are used to express identical thoughts, and that no distinction can be made between them. Often singular and plural alternate within a single passage or argument, both obviously indicating one and the same divine power, the totality of gods.”

. . . . . .
In 1957, Gilbert François published Le Polythéisme et l’emploi au singulier des mots θεός δαίμων dans la littérature grecque d’Homère a Platon. Therein, François painstakingly examined all of classical Greek literature prior to 350 BC, to determine the true meaning intended by classical authors when they made use of the singular ho theos, which Christians, going back at least to Eusebius, have routinely insisted on interpreting as synonymous with the gaseous invertebrate they call “God”.

For those who do not have direct access to that volume (WorldCat.Org informs me that the closest library that holds a copy of Gilbert’s book is on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, in West Yorkshire, UK), and/or for those with little or no skill in the French language, there is, fortunately, a very helpful review of François’ book published by Joseph Fontenrose in 1960 (in English).

Fontenrose’s review is quite thorough, and he is not shy about pointing out what he sees as gaps in François’ argument. Nevertheless, Fontenrose’s assessment of what François had accomplished is unreserved: “These objections and disagreements are not intended to depreciate the worth of François’ treatise, which does a great service in demolishing every support for theories that the ancient Greeks had a monotheistic tendency. There is no monotheism in Homer or Pindar or Aeschylus or Herodotus; there was certainly none in cult.”

Below is the review in its entirety. It was originally published in Classical Philology, vol. 55, No. 1 (Jan. 1960), pp. 55-58. A brief excerpt was included in a previous post in this blog: “The totality of the Gods” (Lies, Damned Lies, & Pagan Monotheism, Part Deux)“. Also, here is a direct link to the review at JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/pss/265449.

Le Polythéisme et l’emploi au singulier des mots θεός δαίμων dans la littérature grecque d’Homère a PlatonBy GILBERT FRANÇOIS. (Bibliotheque de la Faculté de Philosophie et Lettres de l’Universite de Liège, Fasc. CXLVII.) Paris: Société d’Edition “Les Belles Lettres,” 1957. Pp. 374+19.In the entire range of ancient Greek literature from the Homeric poems to Nonnus one encounters the singular noun (ὁ) θεός in passages where it does not refer to a god that is named in the context. Scholars have differed about the meaning of the singular of this word in many of these passages. Some have seen in this use of theos a monotheistic tendency and have rendered it “God,” and it plainly has this meaning in some philosophical writings. Others, insisting that the Greeks were thoroughgoing polytheists, argue that in most such passages the singular refers to a particular god whose name the writer either does not know or does not care to mention; they therefore translate with “the god” or “a god.” For some passages they are certainly right; for a good many others such an interpretation seems forced. Still other scholars interpret (ho) theos as a collective singular in many of these passages. Among them is Gilbert François, who has devoted a fairly big book to a thorough and painstaking study of every passage of Greek literature from Homer to Plato in which the singulars (ho) theos and (ho) daimon are used without obvious reference to an individual deity; and along with these singulars he studies every occurrence of the substantives to theion and to daimonion.

François shows that in most passages where the unspecific theos and daimon occur the singular is equivalent to (hoi) theoi and (hoi) daimones, when these plurals mean all gods or all supernatural powers together. It is used exactly as “man” is used in English as a collective singular to mean “mankind” or “(all) men.” Theos, therefore, often means “godkind” as simply another term for all the gods in one, divinity in general. Taking one by one every Greek author who lived and wrote before 350 B.C., he shows by quotation of parallel passages, as often as possible from a single work of the author concerned, that again and again (ho) theos and (hoi) theoi are used to express identical thoughts, and that no distinction can be made between them. Often singular and plural alternate within a single passage or argument, both obviously indicating one and the same divine power, the totality of gods. Especially when the gods are described as rulers of the world, controllers of fate, dispensers of justice, or as intervening in human affairs, the singular is often used instead of the plural not as much as the plural by most authors, it appears, but often enough by everyone. In reference to the gods as objects of cult the plural predominates, but the singular is found as early as the Homeric poems and is in- creasingly employed thus in later times.

Not in every instance, however, is theos meaning “godkind” collective in sense; opposition’s case, even when it is an sometimes the sense is generic (as in reference to qualities that a god has as god) or abstract (divinity as an abstract term). The plural may also be used generically and abstractly, so that here too singular and plural are parallel. Aside from Xenophanes, Plato, and one or two other philosophers, no Greek writer before 350 ever uses the singular to mean “God” as the one deity of the world or to mean a supreme being that rules over inferior gods; and even these philosophers often use the singular in a collective or generic sense in the manner of other writers. The development of the collective sense of theos, says François, is a linguistic, not a theological, phenomenon.

The singular and plural of (ho) daimon are often used exactly as those of theos; when they differ the former are usually either more impersonal, referring to supernatural power in general, or refer to supernatural beings inferior to gods.

Since prose writers are as likely as poets to use either the singular or plural of theos and daimon when they refer to the gods collectively, it is apparent that the choice of singular or plural is not dictated by the exigencies of meter. Presence or absence of the article with theos and daimon has no significance when the word is used without reference to an individual god: either theos or ho theos may mean”godkind.”

François’ argument is convincing; his careful, thorough, and well-reasoned study proves his thesis that unspecific theos and daimon have in most, instances a collective sense. His method is necessarily the close discussion of one passage after another, with a summary of conclusions at the end of each chapter; his book is pretty much a series of explications de texte. Of such a book we can demand only soundness and completeness and these we have. We cannot insist that it be entertaining too: it is not designed for armchair reading. Nevertheless the book is a bit too prolix, though this fault is largely due to François’ generosity in dealing with alternative interpretations. He constantly hears the opposition’s case, even when it is an imaginary opposition. In instances where his collective interpretation of (ho) theos is obviously right, he will give full consideration to a bare possibility that the singular could refer to an individual god, even though nobody has ever adopted the specific interpretation nor is likely to. François’ argument would have been more effective if the book had been reduced by one third.

Though I agree in general with François’ thesis and conclusions and find his interpretations sound, his zeal has led him astray in his interpretation of a few passages. He is often more logical than the writer whose work he is discussing. In considering the phrase κατὰ δαίμονα καὶ τύχαν which appears in Diagoras, Fragment 2, he maintains (p. 84) that daimon means divine power rather than fate or destiny, since fate and chance are mutually exclusive, whereas the divine power and chance are not. He supports his argument by pointing to the recurring θεὸς καὶ τύχη. The Greeks did not distinguish so sharply as this between fate and chance, or between the divine will and either: the three concepts, and the several Greek words which indicate them, run together. Diagoras’ phrase is simply a redundant expression like “trusting to luck and Jesus,” where the two terms mean essentially the same thing to the speaker. And what does che sara, sara refer to, fate or chance? Diagoras’ phrase recurs in the same or similar form and means the same as κατὰ δαίμονα or κατὰ τύχη alone, both everyday expressions. The reason one does not find κατὰ θεὸν καὶ δαίμονα, the nonappearance of which François uses as an argument, is that such a phrase did not establish itself in idiom. Again, since the gods’ will and fate were constantly identified, it is hardly true that the former concept is less contrary than the latter to chance.

In several other instances François’ excessive logicality leads him to put too much meaning into commonplace idioms. In dealing with σὺν (τῷ) θεῷ, σὺν (τοῖς) θεοῖς, he finds, or looks for, meaning for the noun from the logic of the context, exactly as when he finds the noun used in the nominative or accusative case as the subject or object of discourse; thus he gives the dative of these phrases varying interpretations according to the possible meanings of the noun. He is right that singular or plural form makes no difference to the phrase; but the phrase is colloquial and is used without much regard to the literal denotation of theos: it is “with God’s help” or “with good luck,” which, colloquially, have the same use, and therefore the same meaning, in English. σὺν θεῷ, in fact, differs not at all from σὺν τύχη θεοῦ, τύχη θεῶν, etc., phrases which François also treats much too literally. Of course, a pious person like Xenophon, having used the phrase σὺν θεῷ several times, may justify himself by a discourse on the gods’ omniscience and wisdom (Hipp. 9. 8f.).

In considering the oath formula πρὸς θεῶν καὶ δαιμόνων (p. 192, n. 1), quoted from Andocides and Isaeus, François says that the second noun must refer to inferior divine beings, distinct from the gods. I hardly think so; formulae, especially those which have a legal character, are likely to be redundant, for example, “‘goods and chattels,” “men and citizens.” Even in τους οὕτε δαιμόνων οὕτε θεῶν ὅπιν έχοντας (Herod. 9. 76. 2) the disjunction should not be pressed too hard (p. 201, n. 1): at most δαιμόνων includes more than θεῶν.

In the Politicus, Timaeus, and other late dialogues Plato distinguishes between (ho) theos and (hoi) theoi: the singular refers to the supreme being, ho megistos daimon, the plural to the inferior gods who deal directly with mankind. [In fact, one of the most striking examples of Plato completely obliterating all distinction between (ho) theos and (hoi) theoi, and even theoi kai theai,occurs in the Timaeus at 27b-c, as I have discussed in an earlier post. Therefore the implication that Plato’s “late dialogues” make a systematic theological distinction between (ho) theos and (hoi) theoi is utterly without merit. But then again, nearly any argument based on the “devlopmental model” is bullshit from the get-go. Otherwise I do not have any strong feelings about that subject.] François holds (pp. 272f.) that even here Plato slips sometimes into traditional usage without regard for the distinction which he has made, that, for instance, at Pol. 274D εκ θεῶν refers to the supreme being. There Plato’s Stranger, referring to the time when the supreme god abandoned his direct rule over mankind, uses the plural instead of the singular. But does not Plato refer here to both the supreme being and those gods to whom he had assigned the task of helping him govern the world and who abandoned the world when he did? Again in the Timaeus François believes that the difference established between the supreme being and the inferior gods in respect to the number of the noun is often disregarded. In 44E-47C both singular and plural are used in the account of the creation of men, a task which the supreme god had assigned to his subordinates. Why cannot the singular refer to the supreme god under whose authority and plan the other gods act ? In a philosophical discourse we are justified in assuming consistency unless we are forced to give it up. At Pol. 274C παρὰ θεῶν should not be rendered “by the gods (par les dieux)” but “from gods”; the reference is to the gifts that particular gods of the present order, for example Prometheus, gave to man.

I doubt that Herodotus used the masculine singular ho theos to designate a goddess, as François,following Linforth, maintains (p. 324). Kleobis and Biton, after serving the goddess Hera, were rewarded with death in Hera’s temple (1. 31). Solon, who is telling the story to Croesus, interrupts it to remark that ho theos demonstrated by the event that death was better for man than life. It seems to me that ho theos does not refer specifically to Hera, but to the divine power in general, the gods collectively; here as elsewhere Herodotus draws from a particular story a conclusion about the gods and their relation to men. François, so strong an advocate of the collective sense of ho theos, has refused to adopt it here where he could very well have done so. At 2. 133 King Mykerinos of Egypt received a prophecy from Buto, where the goddess Leto had an oracular shrine, that he would die in seven years; he then sent a message of reproach τῷ θεῷ. François refers the noun to Leto. But what is Mykerinos’ reproach? That his father and grandfather, who had committed grave crimes against the gods, nevertheless lived long lives; whereas he, a pious king, had to die soon. That is, Mykerinos’ reproach is directed to the gods, not specifically to Leto, who was their mouthpiece. At 1. 105 I would read
ή θεός with papyri and Longinus. At 6. 82. 1 the second ho theos can hardly refer to anyone but Apollo.

François, like everyone else, interprets to daimonion of the Apology as Socrates’ inhibiting voice, except at 40A, η ειωθυια μου μαντική η του δαιμονίων: here he translates “Mon avertissement coutumier, celui de la Puissance surnaturelle” (p. 287). He argues that elsewhere to daimonion is equivalent to το (του θεού) σημείον, and that in 40A the latter phrase cannot be substituted for the former. The genitive phrase has given trouble to editors, some of whom have bracketed it; François, however, accepts it. But why must the genitive be differently interpreted from the nominative ? Interpreted as to semeion, it may still depend as a genitive upon mantike, “divination through (by means of) the demonic sign.” Notice Herod. 2. 57. 3, των ἱρων η μαντική, “divinationby means of victims,” as Rawlinson translates it. The genitive alone is equivalent to the prepositional phrase seen in την δια των ψηφων μαντικην (Zenob. 5. 75). Therefore η φωνή του δαιμονίων may stand at Theages 128E. Though Socrates’ daimonion manifests itself as a voice, the genitive may be interpreted as a defining genitive. We may also question the argumentof François and others that if it is a sign or voice it cannot also be a kind of spiritual entity. Remember that we say both that conscience is a voice and that we hear the voice of conscience. In saying this I am by no means accepting P. E. More’s interpretation of Socrates’ daimonion as conscience (the inner check); I am merely pointing an analogy. Certainly Socrates’ daimonion was something more alien to its host than is conscience.

Finally, François (p. 140), dealing with an anonymous tragic fragment, translates εις μουνος ανθρώποις θεός, κτλ., by “C’est une seule et unique divinit6 qui a alloue aux hommes, etc.” This seems to indicate an only God rather than the gods collectively. Better, “God (i.e., godkind) is the one and only (power) that has granted to men, etc.”

These objections and disagreements are not intended to depreciate the worth of François’ treatise, which does a great service in demolishing every support for theories that the ancient Greeks had a monotheistic tendency. There is no monotheism in Homer or Pindar or Aeschylus or Herodotus; there was certainly none in cult. Only certain philosophers, by a process of reasoning about the divine nature, arrived at monotheistic conclusions. On the other hand François shows that we need not always force the singular theos into a reference to an individual god.

The book is provided with useful appendixes, a bibliography, and two indexes, one of the several words with which the book is concerned, the other of passages. A general index would have been useful too.

Joseph Fontenrose
Universityof California

>"The totality of the Gods" (Lies, Damned Lies, & Pagan Monotheism, Part Deux)

>In 1957, French scholar Gilbert Francois published a massive (nearly 400 pages) study of all occurrences of the singular nouns ὁ θεὸς (ho theos, “the God”), and ὁ δαίμων (ho daimon, “the daemon”) in Greek literature from Homer to Plato. The title of the work is Le Polythéisme et l’emploi au singulier des mots ΘΕΟΣ, ΛΑΙΜΩΝ dans la littérature grecque d’Homère à Platon.

Francois’ findings were summarized in a review of his book by Joseph Fontenrose, published in vol. 55, no.1 of the journal Classical Philology (Jan., 1960), from which the following is excerpted:

“Gilbert Francois [has] devoted a fairly big book to a thorough and painstaking study of every passage of Greek literature from Homer to Plato in which the singulars (ho) theos and (ho) daimon are used without obvious reference to an individual deity; and along with these singulars he studies every occurence of the substantives to theion and to daimonion.

“Francois shows that in most passages where the unspecific theos and daimon occur the singular is equivalent to (hoi) theoi and (hoi) daimones, when these plurals mean all Gods or all supernatural powers together. It is used exactly as “man” is used in English as a collective singular to mean “makind” or “(all) men.” Theos, therefore, often means “godkind” as simply another term for all the Gods in one, divinity in general. Taking one by one every Greek author who lived and wrote before 350 BC, he shows by quotation of parallel passages as often as possible from a single work of the author concerned, that again and again (ho) theos and (hoi) theoi are used to express identical thoughts, and that no distinction can be made between them. Often singular and plural alternate within a single passage or argument, both obviously indicating one and the same divine power, the totality of the Gods.”
[Classical Philology, Vol. 55, No. 1, p. 55]

Also see this previous blog entry where there is an especially relevant passage from Plato’s Timaeus that offers a clear example of not only the plural and the singular of theos being used interchangeably, but even of the phrase “Gods and Goddesses” being explicitly used as well:
Pagan Cosmology: not quite random thoughts on Platonism, polytheism, monism, and so forth

And in this post are discussed (somewhat bluntly) the current crop of “Pagan Monotheism” peddlers (descendants of a long and prestigious line of Christian apologists going back to Eusebius & Co.), headed up by Stephen Mitchell:
Lies, Damned Lies, and Pagan Monotheism

Last, but not least, in this post there is a moderately detailed presentation of primary source material from a number of late-antique Pagans often wrongly identified as “Pagan Monotheists”:
Hic sunt dracones

Full citation for the review of Francois’ book quoted above:
Joseph Fontenrose
Reviewed work(s): Le Polythéisme et l’emploi au singulier des mots θεός daimwn dans la littérature grecque d’Homère à Platon by Gilbert François
Classical Philology
Vol. 55, No. 1 (Jan., 1960), pp. 55-58
(review consists of 4 pages)
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/265449

Charlemagne, Part Deux: "A substantialy new Church was allied with a new political system." (ABHRM, Part Six)

[This post is a continuation from the post: Charlemagne (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism [ABHRM], Part Five)]

“Committed … to the ‘correction’ and education of their subjects.”

The generalized cultural collapse in Roman Italy and what had previously been the western Roman provinces severely weakened the Orthodox (Nicene) Church in the west during the fifth through eighth centuries AD. During this time various heresies (especially but not exclusively Arianism) and even Paganism had more breathing room. In some places, such as Britain, Christianity as a whole declined, at least for a while. But this was not in any way the result of a change of heart or any kind of “liberalization” on the part of the Church.

More than anything else, the somewhat greater religious diversity that is apparent in the west during the darkest of the Dark Ages reveals the extent to which the spread of Christianity (as well as the imposition of one and only one monolithic form of Christianity) had been and continued to be dependent on state sponsored violence. Without a strong, centralized and repressive state as an ally, Christianity in the west was in trouble. But a new saviour arrived late in the 8th century: Charlemagne.

As a direct result of the intervening Dark Age, the resurgent western Christianity that thrived in Charlegmagne’s bloody wake was a fundamentally changed religion. For one thing, a Church whose bishops and most prestigious “theologians” and “philosophers”, such as they were, could not read Greek (and had no interest in learning how) could make no serious claim of seamless continuity with the Christianity of the early “church fathers” who had styled themselves as the heirs and continuators of classical Hellenic culture and philosophy. Compare the Buddhists of Korea (2500 miles from India), who have maintained a strong continuous tradition of Sanskrit studies (because that is the language of the Mahayana Sutras) since soon after Buddhism was first introduced to the “hermit kingdom” in the 4th century AD up to the present day, with the new western Christendom whose “scholars” could not be bothered to learn the language in which the Gospels, the epistles of Paul, and the Nicene Creed had been written!

But what the new Christendom of the West lacked in intellectual curiosity and capacity it more than made up for in cruelty and ferocity, as becomes abundantly clear in the following extended excerpts from Alessandro Barbero’s Charlemagne: Father of a Continent, and also Peter Brown’s The Rise of Western Christendom.

Charles [Charlemagne] had not set himself the declared aim of converting the Saxons to Christianity right from the very beginning. Before him, his father and grandfather had fought against them, and on each occasion, after having defeated them, they were satisfied with the payment of tribute. Einhard [c.775-840, Frankish courtier and biographer of Charlemagne] who was writing when the wounds had had time to heal and could have easily attributed Charles’s campaigns beyond the Rhine to reassuring predestinations, actually asserts in very pragmatic terms that ‘there were too many reasons for disturbing the peace, for example the border between us and them crossed an open plain, except in a few places where great forests or mountain chains more clearly divided the two countries. Thus murder, raids, and arson were continuously committed by one side or the other.’ In the chronicler’s opinion, this insecurity of the frontier with the barbarians inevitably meant that ‘in the end the exasperated Franks could no longer be contented with returning each blow with another and decided to wage full-scale war against them.’

It is clear that religious motivations were inextricably bound up with political ones, as since the time of Charles Martel I [c. 688-741], Frankish swords had sustained missionary work beyond the Rhine. One of the conditions that Pepin [714-768] imposed on the defeated Saxons was the guarantee that the Frankish and Anglo-Saxon clergy working in the area would be free to continue their apostolic tasks without hindrance. It must have appeared obvious to some of these missionaries that Charles’s war had a religious justification. ‘If you do not accept belief in God,’ Saint Lebuin told the Saxons, ‘there is a king in the next country who will enter your land, conquer it, and lay waste.’ But the Saxons obstinately refused to believe, so in the end that king had to make his move.

It was a ferocious war in a country with little or no civilization, with neither roads nor cities, and entirely covered with forests and marshland. The Saxons sacrificed prisoners of war to their Gods, as Germans had aways done before converting to Christianity, and the Franks did not hesitate to put to death anyone who refused to be baptized. Time and again the Saxon chiefs, worn down by war with no quarter, sued for peace, offered hostages, accepted baptism, and undertook to allow missionaries to go about their work. But every time that vigilance slackened and Charles was engaged on some other front, rebellions broke out, Frankish garrisons were attacked and massacred, and monasteries were pillaged. Even the border regions of the Frankish kingdom were not safe. In 778, when Saxons found out that the king and his army were engaged on the other side of the Pyrenees, and would not be able to return before many weeks of forced marches, they appeared in the Rhine Valley. Local commanders had great difficulty in containing them, and then only after much devastation and plunder.

During the period of these rebellions, the figure of a single leader
emerged from among the Saxon ranks. His name was Prince Widukind, and his authority was acknowledged by all the tribes. Just at the time when Charles felt confident that he had pacified the region and gained the loyalty of the Saxon nobles, it was this leader who triggered the most spectacular rebellion by wiping out the Frankish forces hurriedly sent to confront him on the Suntel Mountains in 782. Beside himself with anger at the treachery that had also cost him the lives of two of his closest aides, his chamberlain Adalgisile and his constable Geilo, Charles bround in a new army and forced the rebels to capitulate, with the exception of Widukind, who took refuge with the Danes. The Saxons had to hand over their arms and then, when he had them in his power, he had 4,500 of them decapitated in a single day at the Verden on the Aller, a tributary of the Weser. This episode produced perhaps the greatest stain on his reputation.

Several historians have attempted to lessen Charle’s responsibility for the massacre, by stressing that until a few months earlier the king thought he had pacified the country, the Saxon nobles had sworn allegiance, and many of them had been appointed counts. Thus the rebellion constituted an act of treason punishable with death, the same penalty that the extremely harsh Saxon law imposed with great facility, even for the most insignificant crimes. Others have attempted to twist the accounts provided by sources, arguing that the Saxons were killed in battle and not massacred in cold blood, or even that the verb decollare (decapitate) was a copyist’s error in place of decolare (relocate), so ther prisoners were simply deported. None of these attempts has proved credible ….

In reality, the most likely inspiration for the mass execution of Verden was the Bible. Exasperated by the continual rebellions, Charlemagne wanted to act like a true king of Israel. The Amelkites had dared to raise their hand to betray God’s people, and it was therefore right that every last one of them should be exterminated. Jericho was taken all those inside had to be put to the sword, including men, women, old people, and children, even the oxen, sheep, and donkeys, so that no trace would be left of them. After defeating the Moabites, David, with whom Charles liked to compare himself, had the prisoners stretched out on the and ground, and two out of three were killed. This, too, was part of the Old Testament from which teh king drew constant inspiration, and it is difficult not to discern a practical and cruelly coherent application of that model in the massacre of Verden. Besides, the royal chronicler wrote a few years later, the war against the Saxons had to be conducted in such a manner that ‘either they were defeated and subjugated to the Christian religion of completely swept away.’

In the years that followed 782, Charles conducted a war of unparalleled ruthlessness. For the first time, he wintered in enemy territory and systematically laid the country to waste to starve the rebels. At the same time, he had published the most ferocious of all the laws enacted during his life, the Capitulare de partibus Saxonie, which imposed the death penalty on anyone who offended the Christian religion and its clergy, and in reality it constituted a program for the forced conversion of the Saxons. We can only shudder as we read the sections of this law that condemn to death those who fail to observe fasting on Friday, thus reflecting a harsh Christianity far removed from the original message of the New Testament [bollocks]. Yet we should be careful not to put the blame for this barbarity onto the times in general. The Capitulare de partibus Saxonie is one of those provisions by which an infuriated general attempts to break the resistance of an entire people through terror, and Charles must bear the moral responsibility, like the many twentieth-century generals responsible for equally inhuman measures. It is more important to emphasize that the edict provoked criticisms among Charles’s entourage precisely because of its ruthlessness. Particularly severe criticisms came from Alcuin, the spiritual adviser he most listened to.

The policy of terror and scorched earth initially appeared to pay off. In 785, after the Franks has ravaged the country as far as the Elbe, Widukind was obliged to capitulate, and he presented himself at the palace of Attigny in France to be baptized. The king acted as godfather. Pope Adrian congratulated the victor and ordered thanks to be given in all the churches of Christendom for the new and magnificent victory for the faith. But the baptism imposed by force did not prove very effective. In 793 the harshness of Frankish government ferocity provoked another mass insurrection in the northern regions of Saxony, which had been more superficially Christianized. ‘Once again breaking their faith,’ according to the royal chronicler, the Saxons burned churches, massacred clergymen, and prepared yet again to resist in their forests.

Charles intervened with now customary ferocity, indeed with even more drastic and frighteningly modern measures. Rather than limit himself to devastating the rebel country and starving the population, he deported them en masse and planned the resettlement of those areas with Frankish and Slav colonists. However, he was an able politician and soon understood the need to modify his approach to the problem. He intensified his contacts with the Saxon aristocracy and sought out their collaboration. At a large assembly in Aachen in 797, he isssued on their advice a new version of the capitulary that was considerably more conciliatory than the previous one. This twin policy proved immediately effective, because it guaranteed almost definitively the collaboration of the Saxon nobles with the new regime. Eigil, the monk at Fulda monastery who wrote the account of Abbot Sturmi’s life, stated during those very years that Charles had imposed Christ’s yoke on the Saxons ‘through war, persuasion, and also gifts,’ demonstrating that he well understood how a new flexibility had made it possible to integrate those obstinate Pagans into the Christian empire.
[Charlemagne: Father of a Continent, Alessandro Barbero, pp. 44-48]

Compare the above passage from Barbero with the following from Peter Brown’s The Rise of Western Christendom:

Charlemagne proved to be a man of truly “Napoleanic” energy and width of vision. He was constantly on the move and constantly planning. In one year alone (in 785) he covered 2,000 miles, pacing the frontiers of his new dominions. Such energy boded ill for the Old Saxons. The fate of the Pagan Saxons was crucial to Charles’ new concept of Christian empire. Not only were Saxons Pagan, they were a surprisingly aggressive warrior confederacy whose raids affected precisely the areas in central Germany werhe Frankish settlement and a Frankish style of life had begun to be established.

As had once been the case along the Roman limes, so now in the eighth century, part of the danger posed by the Saxon challenge came from the fact that Franks and Saxons had drawn closer to each other. Saxon noblemen had already come to adopt a large measure of Frankish customs. Yet, like King Radbod [of Frisia], they clung all the more tenaciously to Paganism so as to differentiate themselves from the Franks. It was all the more essential for the prestige of the Carolingian family that the Saxons, who come to adopt so much of Franksih ways, should be declared to be outside the pale as Pagans, and that, as Pagans, they should be well and truly defeated.

In 772, Charlemagne led the Franks into Saxony. They were said to have desecrated the great intertribal sanctuary of the Irminsul, the giant tree which uphead the world. They rode home again, with much plunder, in time for the hunting season in the Ardennes. Next spring the Franks were in northern Italy. In 774, Charles became king, also, of the Lombards. He even made a short visit to Rome. It was the first time that a Frankish king had set foot in Rome. It was also the first time since the fifth century that a western ruler of such power had been greeted in Rome with the sort of elaborate ceremonies which the Romans know so well how to put on. Charles entered Saint Peter’s and, next day, was led through the gigantic basilica churches of the city. In return, Charles proved to be a generous donor. An influx of Frankish silver marked a dramatic recovery in the fortunes of the popes, which was made plain by an unprecedented boom in buildings and repairs.

But it was in Germany, and not in Italy, that Charles showed himself to be a ruler as determined to be obeyed in all matters as any Roman emperor had been. The Saxon war was fought along the same routes into northern Germany as had been taken the legions of Augustus. But this time, unlike Augustus who lost his legions in the Teutoburger Wald, Charlemagne won. It was an unusually vehement war, characterized by the storming, one after another, of well-defended hill-forts. The very flexibility of the kingless society of the Old Saxons prolonged the misery. Total surrender of the Saxons as a whole was impossible. Fifteen treaties were made and broken in 13 years. One Saxon nobelman, Widukind, was able to avoid submission for decades on end. He fled to the Danes and involved even the Pagans of Frisia in his resistance.

For a decade, and entire Frankish order was challenged in the north. Charles found himself forced to take over more territory than he had, perhaps, at first intended to do. He pressed on from the Weser to the Elbe, entering the northern healthlands as far as the Danes. The populations of whole areas were forcibly relocated. In 782, he had 4,500 Saxon prisoners beheaded at Verden, southeast of Bremen….

In 785, Widukind finally submitted and accepted Christian baptism. In the same year, Charles issued his Capitulary on the Region of Saxony. A Capitulary was a set of administrative rulings “from the word of mouth of the king,” grouped under capita, short headings. These were very different in their brusque clarity from the long-winded rhetoric of Roman imperial edicts. They registered, in writing, the invisible, purely oral shock wave of the royal will. The royal will was unambiguous. In theory at least, the frontier was now definitively closed. No other rituals but those of the Christian Church could be practiced in a Frankish province.

“If anyone follows pagan rites and causes the body of a dead man to be consumed by fire … let him pay with his life.

“If there is anyone of the Saxon people lurking among them unbapitized, amd of he scorns to come to baptism and wishes to absent himself and stay a pagan, let him die.”

A small body of clergymen (notably Alcuin, a Saxon from Boniface’s Britain, who was himself connected with the family of Willibrod) were challenged by the brusqueness to restate, more forcibly than ever before, a view of Christian missions which emphasized preaching and persuasion. But, in fact, when it came to Charlemagne’s treatment of the Saxons, most later writers took no notice of Alcuin’s reservations. They accepted the fact that, as befitted a strong king, Charlemagne was entitled to preach to the Saxons ‘with a tongue of iron’ — as a later Saxon writer put it without a hint of blame. Force was what was needed on a dangerous frontier. Education began, rather, at home. IN the reigns of Charlemagne and his successors, a substantially new Church was allied with a new political system, both of which were committed, to a quite unprecedented degree, to the “correction” and education of their subjects.
[The Rise of Western Christendom, Peter Brown, pp. 431-433]

See also (links NOT automatically generated):
Charlemagne (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Five)
Paganism is not a European Religion
Muhammad (A brief history of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Four)
Constantine (A brief history of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Three)

Moses (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Two)

Akhenaten (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part One)
Monotheistic Robots of Doom, Part Deux
Monotheistic Robots of Doom
Lies, Damned Lies, and Pagan Monotheism
Hic Sunt Dracones

Charlemagne (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Five)

Father of a “Continent”?

[W]arfare accompanied him throughout almost every year of his life. The harshest war, and the one most fraught with complications, was the war against the Saxons, which lasted for more than twenty years, took the borders of Christendom to the banks of the Elbe, and incorporated the entire breadth of the German regions within the Frankish kingdom. Back in 772 Charles had already gathered his warriors and led them against the Pagans of the north to achieve a spectacular victory: they took the principle Saxon sanctuary, the Irminsul, where the sacred tree stood. The tree that according to the Saxons held up the heavens had been burned, and the Saxon idols destroyed. But these punitive expeditions had to be repeated every year, because the Saxons resisted with all their force a subjugation that implied both the loss of all their tribal independence and the abandonment of their ancestral beliefs.
[Charlemagne: Father of a Continent, by Alessandro Barbero, p. 44]

Alessandro Barbero’s deservedly acclaimed biography of Charlemagne is subtitled Father of a Continent. But how can a political figure from 1200 years ago be the “father of a continent”? Isn’t the formation of a continent a process governed by plate tectonics, not politics and human history, and doesn’t it take hundreds of millions of years?

Well, it turns out that there are continents and then there are continents. In this case the “Continent” that Charlemagne gave birth to isn’t really a “continent” at all, nor was it even “Europe” (whatever “Europe” might be). What Charlemagne gave birth to was what we today euphemistically refer to as “The West”, and this “West” is, in fact, a handful of powerful nation-states that came into existence in Charlemagne’s bloody wake and who, a thousand years later, found themselves ruling nearly the entire planet earth.

This same “West” is also the homeland for the two flavors of “western” Christianity: Catholicism and Protestantism. Prior to Charlemagne, Christianity was a distinctly eastern (and distinctly “Greek”) religion, and proud of it (see for example the early chapters of Peter Brown’s The Rise of Western Christendom, hereafter referred to as RWC). The strategic alliance of the Frankish barbarian king Charlemagne with the Bishop of Rome marks the true beginning of an independent western, “Latin” Christianity, and this eventually led to the Great Schism in which Latin Catholics and Greek Orthodox mutually excommunicated each other in 1054. And it was this distinctly western Christianity that gave us the Inquisition; the Witch-Hunts; the murderous religious wars also known as “the Reformation”; the theological justification for the African slave-trade; the cultural genocide that attempted, and largely succeeded, in annihilating every religious tradition on half of the planet (the western hemisphere); and European colonialism (which was always and everywhere carried out in the name of spreading the Gospel, and in which the Church was an eager and important participant).

Modern Christianity is overwhelmingly dominated by Catholicism and Protestantism, neither of which existed in the late 8th century AD when Charlemagne succeeded his father, King Pepin of the Franks. But even the vast majority of those Christians who are neither Catholic nor Protestant are European Christians who are members of the various Orthodox Churches of Russia, Greece, Bulgaria, etc. Charlemagne did not single handedly start, or bring to its culmination, the process by which Europe became Christian and Christianity became European. But his violent life and times are universally recognized as one of the key milestones along that road.

A Brief Prehistory of “The West”
The part of the earth in which the western nation-states (and western Christianity) eventually arose was on the furthest fringes of the great civilizations of the ancient world. What little cultural progress (measured in terms of things like writing, urbanization, engineering, science, trade and commerce) the peoples of western and northern Europe had made mostly (and quickly) disintegrated not long after the process of Christianization took root early in the fourth century (after Constantine’s dream or vision or whatever it was). Two of the most dramatic and telling markers of this decline were (1) the rapid depopulation of urban centers (the city of Rome herself lost 90% of it’s population in 100 years, going from 500,000 to 50,000 inhabitants from 450 to 550 AD [RWC, p. 21]), and (2) a comparable decline in the quantity and quality of the historical record (thus resulting directly in the great paucity of written sources documenting this time period).

Although the phrase Dark Ages is often misunderstood and sometimes misused, it nevertheless expresses a very real cultural collapse that begins (roughly speaking) with the sacking of Rome by Alaric and his (Christian) Visigoths in 410, and ends sometime between the year 800, when Charlemagne was crowned “Emperor”, and the year 1000, when the “High Middle Ages” officially begin. As with all periodization schemes, the beginning and ending points of this Dark Age are somewhat arbitrary, but the historical process of cultural, economic, technological and demographic decline followed by a pronounced and sustained recovery in all of those areas is an objective reality and not merely some dreamed-up “social construct”.

The center of gravity of the Greco-Roman world had always been in the East and the South. Culturally the city of Alexandria ruled supreme. This was where Euclid wrote his Elements, where Ptolemy wrote his Almagest and Geographia, and where Eratoshthenes calculated the circumference of the earth. It was also where Callimachus wrote his Hymns, where Apollonius wrote his Argonautica, and where Aristarchus produced his critical editions of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Alexandria was also an economic powerhouse, as one of the most important exporters of grain in the ancient world, and it was also among the most populous cities on earth (probably the second or third largest city in the world).

As all students of “Byzantine” history know, the eastern Roman Empire was far more resilient than Roman Italy and the western provinces. In fact, Byzantium continued on until the middle of the 15th century! By then it had been much reduced in power and glory for many centuries already, but culturally and intellectually it remained a truly great power until the bitter end. And in the final years before the Ottomans finally took Constantinople, many Byzantine scholars, seeing the writing clearly written on that city’s ancient and once inviolable walls, set themselves to spreading their learning in the West, and many went so far as to resettle among the Latin barbarians. The Italian Renaissance was largely a result of this migration both of knowledge and the custodians of that knowledge, from the Greek East to Latin West.

So the Dark Ages were a distinctly “western” phenomenon. As already alluded to, and in sharp contrast to Byzantium, Roman political, military and economic power in the west eroded alarmingly (although perhaps “vanished” is the right word) during the 5th-7th centuries. Weak successor states (some of them admittedly less weak than others) arose where Roman provinces had previously been. Christianity remained as the official state religion in most places that had been under Roman rule, but it was increasingly difficult or even impossible to impose credal uniformity even among the Church hierarchy, let alone among the laity (both high and low born). Lombards, Saxons, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Avars, etc, (and perhaps even the Franks, although these were the most Christian of them all) remained, at least in part, Pagan, and even when they converted they usually could not be counted on to be orthodox. When the Lombards ended up in Italy some had become Christian and some hadn’t, and those that had converted tended to be Arian, or at least tended to be hostile to the Pope in Rome politically, militarily and theologically. When Saxons moved into Britain they brought their Germanic Paganism with them and for a time Christianity declined on the very island where Constantine had first been proclaimed Augustus in 306 (in York).

Where do “peoples” come from?
But who exactly were these barbarian peoples with the funky names? There are two very different answers to that question:

Essentialist approach: Saxons, Lombards, Goths, etc., were already ancient, or at least well established and well defined, “peoples” when they entered the historical record. In particular each of these groups (and subgroups like the Ostrogoths and Visigoths) had their own distinctive “culture”, including religious traditions, concepts of kingship, social and family structure, etc. These groups were also ethnically/genetically distinct from each other.

Ethnogenesis approach: Saxons, Lombards, Goths, etc., are, to a great extent arbitrary designations (“cultural constructs”) for extremely fluid groups of people who were not at all well defined either in terms of “ethnicity” or “culture” or in any other way either prior to their appearance in the historical record, or subsequently. Instead these labels refer to groups that enter the historical record while still in the process of “ethnogenesis”, a process that creates the idea of ethnically (that is, racially or even genetically) well defined groups — but which does not, in fact, create the objective referent of that idea, although it can be part of the process of creating powerful political entities.

There are some very serious problems with both approaches, but the “ethnogenesis” approach has the advantage of hindsight, by virtue of being the more recently articulated theory, and, therefore, it does address the most obvious shortcomings of previous “essentialist” approaches. One of the most serious problems with the ethnogenesis approach is that it tends to be over-utilized as a blunt instrument in the service of faddish ideological polemics. Postmodernist types especially adore the theory of “ethnogenesis” because it provides them yet more opportunities to say “cultural construct” over and over again. But Christian apologists also are attracted to the theory because it allows them to give the impression that Germanic, Baltic, Slavic, etc Pagans had no real religions of their own prior to their contact with Christianity (thus exonerating them of the responsibility for suppressing the religions of those peoples, since they had none).

Patrick Geary’s book The Myth of Nations well illustrates both the strengths and weaknesses of the anti-essentialist ethnogenesis approach. Geary is relentles, but only ocassionally tiresome, in his earnest polemical deconstructionism. Geary intends this book for a wide audience, and, therefore, subtlety is often just not part of his agenda. But his painting, broad strokes and all, is often accurate and is quite helpful in understanding recent trends in the black art of historiography, and it gives a very nice view from 30,000 feet of how we got from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Europe. A less ideological, but also less accessible and more narrowly focussed, application of the anti-essentialist approach is to be found in Herwig Wolfram’s The Roman Empire and its Germanic Peoples. Another important (and even more narrowly focussed) work on Dark Age ethnogenesis is Patrick Amory’s People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy, 489-554.

From Clovis to Charlemagne
Without getting bogged down in speculative (and as often as not ideologically driven) theoretical postures about where “peoples” come from, we do have to get into at least some of the nitty gritty of this period which is not only called the Dark Ages but is also called the Age of Migration, or even “The Barbarian Invasion of Europe”, or alternatively, “The Barbarian Conversion”. In order to simplify and focus the discussion in the remainder of this post, I will concentrate now on the developments that eventually led to Charlemagne’s coronation as Emperor on Christmans Day, 800 AD. First let’s go all the way back to King Clovis. Here is Peter Brown, from his Rise of Western Christendom:

After the 460’s, northern Gaul resembled Britain. It was a land without an empire. It’s leading inhabitants had begun to accept this fact. This is shown by a significant change in local burial customs. Romani and barbarians alike, whether Christian or pagan, came to be buried bearing arms ….

In this increasingly militarized world, the Franks were by no means newcomers. Many had served in the high command of the imperial armies in the fourth century. To take one example: Bauto, a Frankish chieftain in imperial service became consul in 385 …. Franks such as Bauto were already honorary Romans. They claimed to be descended, like the Romans, from the Trojans. Priam had been their first king. They had only recently — so Franks close to the Rhine frontier — come to Germany from ancient Troy!

Not every Frank was like Bauto. The Franks who were led by king Childeric, in the 470’s, were wilder men. Childeric was a Merovingian. Later legends made the Merovingians the descendants of a Frankish queen who had coupled with a sea monster when swimming in the North Sea, the legendary home of heroes….

Childeric’s son, Clovis — Hlodovech, “glorious warrior” — inhereted the many strands of his father’s authority in Gaul. He was a pagan; yet he received a letter from Remigius, the Catholic bishop of Rheims: “May justice proceed from your mouth.” From the very beginning, Clovis wished to be king of the Franks in a new, more forceful style….

The Lex Salica, the Laws of the Salian Franks [issued by Clovis, possibly around 486 AD], took the paganism of the Frankish inhabitants of the Rhine estuary for granted. It protected with special penalties the great gelded boars who have been set apart for sacrificial banquets: for boars were the bristling, magical guarantors of the waving growth of the cornfields. The law was particularly concerned to regulate the legal status of humble Frankish farmers over against the neighboring Romani. As Franci (perhaps from Frekkr, “the fierce ones”), weapon-bearing Franks, even the poorest, could still stand high in Gaul. But they were told all this in a Latin text, issued by a king who used Latin advisers. Clovis intended to rule Romans and Franks alike as firmly as had any Romanus.
[pp. 133-136]

As Clovis’ long reign continued on into the early sixth century, the Visigoths ruling southern Gaul developed an increasingly cozy relationship with the Orthodox (Nicene) Church, despite the fact that the Visigoths themselves were Arian heretics. Clovis viewed this pan-Christian alliance as a potential threat. In 506, the Visigoth king Alaric II issued his own abbreviated version of the Theodosian Code, with the strong approval of Orthodox bishops. Then Alaric summoned a Council of Bishops, the first ever in Gaul, and in return the bishops openly prayed for the expansion of Alaric’s kingdom.

Clovis’ response to the threat from south was to visit the Orthodox Christian shrine of Saint Martin of Tours, in search of a sign. As Clovis entered the church he heard these words being chanted aloud: “For thou hast girded me with strength unto battle; thou has subdued under me those who rose up against me.” (That is from Psalms 18:39, which is one of those “prayers of imprecation” one sometimes hears about.)

Clovis (still not a Christian) praised God and invaded southern Gaul. By the summer of 507 he was the victorious ruler of all of Gaul. A year and a half later Clovis was baptized, along with 3,000 of his soldiers, by the Orthodox bishop of Rheims. (For more details see RWC pp. 136-138 and references therein.)

After Clovis’ death his rule devolved to his sons and then to his grandsons, each of whom was a “king”. The Frankish realms were once again united under a single ruler under Clothar II, whose reign, along with that of his heir, Dagobert I, from 584 to 639 AD (combined), was “the most peaceful, prosperous and significant period of Frankish history since the reign of Clovis,” according to Patrick Geary in his Before France and Germany: The Creation and the Transformation of the Merovingian World (p. 51).

But Dagobert I was the last strong “Merovingian” ruler. In 751, Pepin the Short once again united the Frankish realms. His son was Charlemagne. Together Pepin and Charlemagne ruled from 751 – 814.

[To be continued …..]

See also (links NOT automatically generated):
Paganism is not a European Religion
Muhammad (A brief history of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Four)
Constantine (A brief history of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Three)

Moses (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Two)

Akhenaten (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part One)
Monotheistic Robots of Doom, Part Deux
Monotheistic Robots of Doom
Lies, Damned Lies, and Pagan Monotheism
Hic Sunt Dracones

In Honor of Freddie Mercury: "We are Zoroastrians, My Friends …."

November 24 will be the 18th anniversary of the death of Freddie Mercury. Among very many other things, Mercury is probably the world’s most famous Zoroastrian. The beautiful drawing of Freddie to the right, by the way, was done by Julie Popowicz.

Zoroastrianism is often proclaimed to be the world’s first monotheistic religion. However, Mary Boyce, one of the leading 20th century scholars of Zoroastrianism, wrote in her On Mithra’s Part in Zoroastrianism that when one compares what is known about the polytheistic religion of the Iranians before Zoroaster, with what is known about Zoroastrianism itself, “the two are remarkably and disconcertingly similar, as if the second were a natural development from the first without any break in continuity.” Professor Boyce also wrote in her book-length study Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices that the earliest forms of Zoroastrianism included the worship of not only the “the six great Beings” but also “other beneficent divinities, which are the beneficent gods of the pagan Iranian pantheon.” [p. 55] In fact, Zoroaster himself called upon “Mazda and the other Ahuras.” [p. 61]

But despite Boyce’s consistent critique of what she called “the established academic dogma of the prophet’s [that is, Zoroaster’s] rigid monotheism”, when she died in 2006 an obituary (written by one of her students!) begins with the sentence:

The perspective of Mary Boyce, who has died aged 85, on Zoroastrianism, the world’s first monotheistic religion, was transformed by a year of fieldwork in 1966 among orthodox Zoroastrians in remote villages around the desert city of Yazd in central Iran.

But in the very next sentence, we are told that “What she discovered there led her to question many scholarly assumptions about the prophet Zoroaster and his followers.”!!!! One might never guess (in fact, how could one guess from what has just been said) that among these “scholarly assumptions” is the assertion that Zoroastrianism is a religion with one and only one God, in other words, precisely the kind of thinking that is intentionally perpetuated in the act of trumpeting Zoroastrianism as “the world’s first monotheistic religion”!!! It’s true that Boyce accepted, with strong and strongly worded reservations, the term “monotheism” as applicable to Zoroastrianism, while never tiring of criticizing those who misapplied anachronistic (and as will be shown below, not merely Christianizing but Protestantizing) interpretations to Zoroastrianism under the guise of “monotheism”.

Boyce always emphasized the simple fact that Zoroastrians have always recognized and worshipped multiple Deities. For example, according to Boyce, King Darius (who reigned from 522 to 486 BC) would “call upon ‘the other gods who are’ and upon ‘all the gods'” although Darius “only invoked Ahuramazda by name.” Artaxerxes II, who reigned from 404 to 358 BC, however, invoked the divine triad Ahuramazda, Anahita and Mithra — each by name, and from that time on all three Ahuras, along with Verethraghna, the Yazata (“one worthy of veneration”) of Victory “became the chief objects of popular devotion also.” And as Boyce’s choice of words implies, these four Deities were not the only “objects of popular devotion.” [p. 56 of Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices]

Many other Yazatas, in addition to that of Victory, were also revered in Zoroastrian Persia. Each of the twelve months had its own Yazata, and the same is true for each of the thirty days of each month. There was also a Yazata specifically for Prayer, named Sraosha (also known at the Yazata of Obedience). This Yazata gained in prominence during the Achaemenid period, but was already “beloved by Zoroaster himself. The prophet names him several times in the Gathas, and once (Y 33.5) calls him ‘greatest of all’, presumably as guardian of the means — prayer — through which man can approach God.” [p. 74]

The following three excerpts are all from Boyce’s monumental A History of Zoroastrianism: The Early Period:

From the days of ancient Greece Zoroaster’s own name had been familiar to the learned as that of a fabled Eastern sage; and when the Avesta came at last [in the 18th century] into [western] scholar’s hands, they sought eagerly in it for teachings which would justify this fame. At the time European men of letters acknowledged the twofold authority of Christianity and Reason, that of the former being as yet unchallenged by scientific advance; and Zoroaster’s faith, since it had been propounded by one of the great teachers of mankind, was expected to be of a kind which a rational Christian could approve. There was dismay when its scriptures showed it to be be on the contrary in many respects remote and strange. For one thing, it was a faith which acknowledged, under God, many lesser divine beings, who were reverenced with a wealth of complex rituals and observances. Christianity and acquaintance with Greek mythology had combined to create in Europe a conviction that polytheism belonged to the childlike past of the human race, having been superseded for all advanced peoples by monotheism. Protestant Christianity, moreover (in which faith most Western interpreters of Zoroastrianism were reared), had no high regard for ritualism, even in the worship of a single God. To accept Zoroastrianism as it was, and to try to understand Zoroaster’s teachings with the help of the living tradition, proved accordingly too much for the West; and a solution to the resulting dilemma was eventually found. in the middle of the 19th century, by the brilliant philologist Martin Haug. By painstaking study he isolated the Gathas (a group of seventeen ancient hymns) as the only part of the Avesta which could be regarded as the direct utterance of Zoroaster.; and he then proceeded, in all sincerity, to interpret these archaic and very difficult texts (concerning whose translation no two scholars to this day agree) independently from the actual beliefs and practices of Zoroaster’s followers, whose forbears, he thought, must have early corrupted their prophets teachings. Struggling as a pioneer with these baffling hymns, Haug managed to understand Zoroaster to have preached a strict monotheism — stricter even than that of the Hebrew prophets — rejecting while he did so all the rituals of sacrifice and worship, apart from prayer. He assumed, that is, that the prophet of ancient Iran had been the bearer of a rational and ethical theism, which was so remote from the concepts and customs of his own people that, though they brought themselves to accept his teachings, they could not long live with their austerity, but soon distorted them, relapsing more or less into their former beliefs and ways.

One consequence of this simplification of Zoroaster’s message was that it delayed recognition of his vital part in shaping those Messianic and eschatological doctrines which were to have so great an influence on later Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In seeking to exalt the prophet’s stature, Haug in fact diminished his role in the history of human thought. His thesis proved, however, a potent factor in the development of Zoroastrian studies, and even in that of modern Zoroastrianism. In Europe it was adopted by a number of leading scholars, who were happy to be enabled thus to view Zoroaster in a way acceptable to their own time and culture; and in India, where Haug expounded it in person in the 1860’s, it was warmly welcomed by one groups of Zoroastrians themselves. This was composed of Parsis who had received a Western education in Bombay, and who found in Haug’s theories a swift and radical solution to a problem that had been tormenting them, namely how to reconcile the elaborate doctrines and usages of their venerable faith with 19th century scientific thought, and to maintain its dignity against the assaults of Protestant Christian missionaries. They gave ardent support to the idea thus presented to them that Zoroaster had not been a dualist — a doctrinal position abhorrent to the proselytizing Christians — but had taught a very simple faith, free from all ritualism and subtleties of dogma. Hence to become his true disciples they had only to reform the existing religion on this basis, making it once more a creed to which any thinking man who was not an atheist could readily adhere.

These reformists, setting vigorously about their task, expressed themselves mostly in English, and so it was their voices which were chiefly heard in the West, where by a circular process they were welcomed as confirming scholarly interpretations of their ancient faith. Within their own community they met, however, with strenuous opposition from those, both learned and simple, who were not so ready to abandon the beliefs and customs of their forefathers for a religion newly defined at a European desk.
[from the Forward]

In his
Gathas Zoroaster invokes, as well as Ahura Mazda and the seven Bounteous Immortals, the “other Ahuras” (who can only be Mitrha and Vouruna Apam Napat). He also refers by name to a number of the lesser yazatas: Sraosa, Asi, Geus, Tasan, Geus Urvan, Tusnamaiti, Iza — beings who win mention in his hymns, it seems, because of their close association with the rituals of sacrifice and worship. It is clearly implied in the prophet’s words what is stated in the tradition, that all these beings were part of the creation of Ahura Mazda, brought into being to help him oppose the forces of evil and owing him utter loyalty and obedience. This is the monotheism of Iran, preached by Zoroaster and maintained in the face of all adversity by his followers down to the 19th century AD: that in the beginning Ahura Mazda alone existed as a being worthy of worship, the solitary yazata, wholly wise, just and good. He is the only uncreated God, and is himself the first cause of all else that is good, whether divine or earthly, sentient or insentient — for after bringing into being his divine helpers he proceeded, through them, to fashion the world and all that is good in it, as a further means of confounding evil and bringing it in the end to nothingness.
[p. 195]

[T]hat the prophet himself venerated all these beings as individuals, together with Ahura Mazda, has the unwavering support of the whole Zoroastrian tradition down to the 19th century, as well as that of a minority of Western scholars. With respect to the alternate theory (that to Zoroaster they were merely ‘aspects’ of God) it has been justly said: ‘the fervor of piety has nothing to do with such … subtle distinctions, but addresses itself to divine Beings, whose beauty is felt here as fascinating and whose power is recognized as effective’. [Henry Corbin, Eranos-Jahrbuch XXII, 1953, 101] That attributes of a great god, having been isolated, should then be invoked and worshipped as independent divinities was already a characteristic of pagan Iranian religion, as we have already seen strikingly in the case of the lesser Ahura, Mithra: for around him, the Lord Loyalty, are grouped “Justice”, “Judgin”, “Valour” and “Obedience” (Arstat, Rasnu, Hamvereti, Sraosa); and close though these beings are to him, each has his or her own separate life, and all receive worship and offerings to secure their individual favors. Nor are these divinities less “abstract” than those of Zoroaster’s own revelation. Reverence for deities who personified “abstractions” appear a dominant feature of Indo-Iranian worship, as does also the linking of such “abstract” personifications with concrete phenomena — Loyalty with fire and sun, Troth with water. The mould in fact was already old in which Zoroaster cast his new doctrines.
[pp. 202-203]

[i hate to blow my own conch-shell, but how many places on teh internets are you gonna find somebody writing about freddie mercury and henry corbin in the same post? not that freaking many, that’s how many.]

"By This Sign We Prosper" (Heart of Darkness, Part One)

Heart of Darkness:
Part One:
“By This Sign We Prosper”
Part Two: Christian Demographics Fun Facts
Part Three: Doing the Lord’s Work In Rwanda
Part Four: Conflict and Genocide: Lessons from Rwanda
Part Five: Preparing the Way for Genocide in Rwanda

A Brief History of Monotheism in Africa

Most Africans (90+%) are either Christian or Muslim. And most live in countries that are overwhelmingly (80-99%) one or the other.

Islam is predominant in northern and eastern Africa, and this has been the case since the early days of Islam, over 1000 years ago. For the most part the Islamic conquest of those parts of Africa simply amounted to a transition from one monotheistic theocracy (Christendom) to another (Islam).

A minority (about 10%) of the Egyptian population remained Christian even after the Islamic conquest. Other than Egypt, Ethiopia was the only remaining Christian stronghold in Africa after the spread of Islam, that is, until the rise of European colonialism. One estimate is that there were only 9 million Christians in all of Africa as late as 1900 (only about 7% of the total African population of the time). Today there are close to half a billion Christians in Africa, somewhere between 40 and 45% of a total African population of around 1 billion.

The vast majority of Christians in Africa today are Christians because of only one reason: European colonialism. The history of monotheism in Africa is really very simple. First, Christianity was imposed by force from 324 to about 600 AD. Then Islam was imposed by force, starting a little after 650 AD, and the vast majority of those forced to convert to Islam were descendants of those who had already been forced to convert to Christianity. Then, in a process that had it’s early beginnings as far back as the 1500’s, but which dramatically accelerated in the late 1800’s, the European Great Powers imposed Christianity by force, but almost exclusively in the non-Muslim parts of Africa.

It is interesting to note that the European colonialists were so circumspect in their missionary activities in places where Islam was already well established. This was a “professional courtesy” that the Muslims, in their youthful exhuberance, had neglected, for the most part, to extend to their brother monotheists during their own early conquests in Africa.

The Crime of the Congo

It is worth pausing to consider the magnitude of the great cultural genocide that has been accomplished in Africa in just slightly over a century. In that short time, the spiritual traditions of hundreds of millions of people has been nearly completely eliminated. These ancient traditions were still intact, although already under siege, in the days when my great grandparents were young. This was done by modern industrialized nations and by modern “denominations”, not by black hooded medieval Inquisitors or Crusading knights on horseback.

What happened in the Congo provides crucial insights into what happened throughout Africa during this period of intense Colonialization and equally intense Christianization. In 1885, King Leopold II of Belgium established the Congo Free State, which was neither “free” nor a “state”. It was a corporation, and Leopold was the only shareholder! It was a corporation with it’s own private army, and it “owned” a territory 76 times larger than the nation of Belgium itself!

In 1905, Mark Twain wrote the satirical King Leopold’s Soliloquy. On the front cover of an early edition there was a picture of a cross and a machete above the motto: “In This Sign We Prosper”. In that same edition, the following text, in the shape of a cross (as below), faced the frontispiece:

The illustration on the frontispiece itself shows a flag waving bearded figure (Leopold) standing atop a large pyramid, the sky above filled with dark clouds and lightning flashes, and the ground below populated by neat rows of headless skeletons, all holding hands:

In the Soliloquy, Twain portrays Leopold as clutching and kissing a crucifix while bemoaning how unfairly he has been portrayed in the media because of the increasingly widely-known (at the time) violence of his “Free State” in the Congo. Leopold protests (to himself) that he is “oozing with piety at every pore” and that he has been solely concerned with the spiritual well-being of his 25 million Congolese subjects, whom he wishes to “lift up … into the light, the light of our blessed Redeemer, the light that streams out from his holy Word, the light that makes glorious our noble civilization ….”

The King ends his soliloquy by comforting himself with the knowledge that his misdeeds in the Congo will go unpunished for two reasons. First of all, whatever “excesses” may have occurred are more than offset by the tremendous spiritual benefit derived from the conversion of the Congolese to the One True Faith. Second of all, Leopold realizes that when it comes right down to it, his fellow Christians and fellow Europeans are too ashamed by what they themselves have been a party to, so that when evidence is presented to them they will “shudder and turn away …. certainly that is my protection … I know the human heart.” Following this there is another cross shaped section of the text:

And following that there comes a “Supplement” added with the explanation that “Since the first edition of this pamphlet was issued, the Congo story has entered upon a new chapter.” This “new chapter” was the result of the revelations emanating from King Leopold’s own Commission of Inquiry. The Supplement ends with an interview titled simply “Ought King Leopold to be Hanged?”.

Mark Twain wasn’t the only well known writer to speak out on the issue of the Congo. In 1909 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published his The Crime of the Congo, which begins like this:

There are many of us in England who consider the crime which has been wrought in the Congo lands by King Leopold of Belgium and his followers to be the greatest which has ever been known in human annals. I am very strongly of that opinion. There have been great expropriations like that of the Normans in England or of the English in Ireland. There have been massacres of populations like that of the South Americans by the Spaniards or of the subject nations by the Turks. But never before has there been such a mixture of wholesale wholesale expropriation and wholesale massacre all done under the an odious guise of philanthropy and with the lowest commercial motives as a reason. It is this sordid cause and the unctious hypocrisy which makes this crime unparalleled in its horror.

The Horror …. The Horror ….

It is a thankless business, quantifying human suffering. An even more unrewarding task is that of measuring and assessing the magnitude of human evil. Just how bad was “the crime of the Congo”, and just how bad were the criminals who perpetrated it? It is crucial to point out (for now in passing, but in a later post in much more detail) that the most vocal critics of King Leopold were often (like Twain and Conan Doyle) to be found among the British and the Americans, whose savage policies towards the native inhabitants of the New World are unmatched in the annals of Genocide. Today comparisons between Leopold and Hitler are sometimes made, and such comparisons are hotly debated by knowledgeable and impassioned proponents on both sides. But what about comparisons between Andrew Jackson and Adolf Hitler?

The appalling fact is that much of the early 20th century rancor over the atrocities in the Congo was simply part of the cynical political maneuvering of colonial rivals: articles of cookware, all found in the same kitchen, all owned and operated by the same cook, all accusing each other of being foul, fiendish, infernal articles of cookware. The uber-sanctimoniousness of the screeds by Twain and Conan Doyle was only partially due to the very real horrors committed in the Congo by the Belgians. But, as I just promised, I’ll have to return to the hypocrisy of the accusers later.

Belgium lurched into the Scramble for Africa very late in the game, but they lost no time in demonstrating that when it came to conquest and exploitation, the small nation of Belgium could run with the big dogs. Estimates in terms of human lives lost as a direct result of Belgian colonialism during the heyday of the Congo Free State vary from 3 to 10 million (between 2% and 8% of the total population of Africa at the time). One estimate is that the population of the area under the control of the Congo Free State declined from 30 million to only 8 million between 1885 and 1908!

In his 1995 book King Leopold’s Ghost Adam Hochschild actually attempted to identify the original model for the character Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Hochschild found that there were multiple candidates among the sociopaths in Leopold’s employ, including more than one man who decorated his garden with the skulls of his victims. That was not the main point of Hochschild’s book, though. In the Introduction to the book, Hochschild describes reading, in a footnote, a casual reference to Mark Twain’s involvement in “a worldwide movement against slave labor in the Congo, a practice that had taken 5 to 8 million lives.” Hochschild was stunned by the fact that he had never heard of either these atrocities or “the worldwide movement” condemning them, even though he had been a writer and researcher on the subject of human rights for years!

In his Personal Afterward, written after the initial publication and reactions (both praising and damning) of his book, Hochschild also spoke of the initial resistance he faced in getting the book published:

When I began working on it, it was surprisingly hard to get anyone interested. Of the ten New York publishers who saw a detailed outline of the book, nine turned it down. One suggested the story might work better as a magazine article. The others said there was no market for books on African history or simply felt Americans would not care about these events so long ago, in a place few could find on a map. Happily, the tenth publisher, Houghton Mifflin, had more faith in readers’ ability to see connections between Leopold’s Congo and today.

Not only has King Leopold’s Ghost now sold hundreds of thousands of copies (not bad for a history book!), it has also been translated into a dozen languages, and it was the basis for an award winning documentary by the same name in 2006.

UPDATED: J.B. Bury on Christianity and persecution

I added quite a bit to the original post, especially on the 5th century (to fill in the gap between Theodosius and Justinian). And I also fiddled with the opening section a bit. So I decided to repost the whole thing with the new material – and just leave a link pointing here at the address of the oiriginal post.

Most of this post will be comprised of extended excerpts from J.B. Bury’s History of the Later Roman Empire, which is freely available online thanks to the folks at LacusCurtius: A Gateway to Ancient Rome.

Some might be shocked by what Bury has to say, and how he says it. For example:

Persecution was an unavoidable consequence of Constantine’s act in adopting Christianity.

Bury wrote that just about 100 years ago. There might be a temptation to think that such a sweeping and unequivocal condemnation of Christianity would not be found among modern day mainstream academics, and indeed there are a great many scholars today, not (nearly!) all of them Christians, who would categorically reject Bury’s statement not only as wrong, but as profoundly wrong-headed and even beyond the pale of acceptable discourse. (Bury, by the way, was the most important historian of the Roman Empire to come along since Edward Gibbon, and compared to what Gibbon had to say about Christianity, Bury was positively flattering!)

Among contemporary scholars, there are, in fact, many whose work confirms Bury’s point of view. Some of the more important names are Ramsay MacMullen, Perez Zagorin, Michael Gaddis, Pierre Hadot, Charles Freeman, Frank Trombley and Eberhard Sauer (names that might be familiar to regular readers of this blog). Here are just a few examples of how these modern scholars support what Bury said a century ago:

Ramsay MacMullen
In his study Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries, Macmullen titles his first chapter simply Persecution, and provides the following preview of the chapter’s contents:

describing the determination of the Christian leadership to extirpate all religious alternatives, expressed in the silencing of pagan sources and, beyond that, in the suppression of pagan acts and practices, with increasing harshness and machinery of enforcement.

In his Voting about God in Early Church Councils, MacMullen tells us that between 325 and 550 AD “not less than twenty thousand” Christians lost their lives at the hands of their co-religionists due to “credal diffferences” (see Chapter Five The Violent Element, and page 56 in particular). While in his Paganism in the Roman Empire, MacMullen writes that Pagans who worshipped different Gods were tolerant and accepting of each other as a matter of course, and that the religious beliefs of Pagans also “envisioned” relations among the Gods Themselves that were “fraternal” and “courteous”, and it was only after the triumph of Christianity that “gods were found to be at war with other gods.” (see Chapter 2, section 3, How the Divine World was Envisioned, page 93 in particular).

Perez Zagorin
Zagorin begins the first chapter of his How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West with the rather blunt declaration:

Of all the great religions of the world past and present, Christianity has been by far the most intolerant.

Chapter Two of Zagorin’s book is titled The Christian Theory of Religious Persecution, in which Zagorin writes:

Religious intolerance and persecution [under Christendom] … were seen not as evils but as necessary and salutary for the preservation of religious truth and orthodoxy and all that was believed to depend on them. What chiefly rendered persecution commendable was a set of doctrines and an underlying rationale that explained and justified it. There was, in short, a Christian theory of persecution that long antecedated any concept of philosophy of religious toleration and freedom….

Michael Gaddis
Much of Gaddis’ book with the chilling title There is no crime for those who have Christ: Religious Violence in the Christian Roman Empire is focused on Christian on Christian violence, but the title is taken from the words of a Christian monk, named Shenoute, who had led an angry mob to the house of a local prominent Pagan. The mob ransacked the Pagan’s house and destroyed anything that looked, to them, remotely related to his religion. When brought before a judge and charged with lestia (banditry, crime, illegal violence), Shenoute did not deny what he had done, but merely proclaimed that “There is no crime for those who have Christ!”

Pierre Hadot
Hadot’s masterful What is Ancient Philosophy? upset some Christian readers because, in the words of one reviewer,

Hadot credits Christianity with the decline of philosophy practiced as a way of life.

“[W]hy is it that today”, Hadot asks, that philosophy is “presented” in a way that “lacks a direct relationship to the philosopher’s way of life?” For Hadot, it must be emphasised, Philosophy is “the philosopher’s way of life”. Therefore Hadot is asking why philosophy has, in effect, been replaced by something that is not philosophy at all.

The causes of this transformation are primarily historical: it is due to the flourishing of Christianity.

[p. 254]

Charles Freeman
Charles Freeman
in his The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason and also his AD 381: Heretics, Pagans and the Christian State, goes much further than Hadot, and this is because, as a historian, he more determined to undertake an explicit examination of how Christianity brought about the “decline of philosophy” (and of freedom of thought, generally).

Frank Trombley
& Eberhard Sauer
Trombleys monumental labor of love Hellenic Religion and Christianization, and Sauer’s The Archaeology of Religious Hatred stand out as the most thorough and detailed examinations of Christian persecution in action.

But I still think that no one has said it all quite so well as Bury!! And so, without further adieu ….


From Constantine to Theodosius

First lets look at the early Christian emperors, from Constantine up through Theodosius (AD 324-395). The following is taken from Chapter 11, Church and State, and specifically from section 3 of that chapter, Persecution of Paganism (there is also a separate section on Persecution of Heresy):

Persecution was an unavoidable consequence of Constantine’s act in adopting Christianity. Two of the chief points in which this faith differed from the Roman State religion were its exclusiveness and the vital importance which it assigned to dogma. The first logically led to intolerance of pagan religions, the second to intolerance of heresies, and these consequences could not be averted when Christianity became the religion of the State. It might be suggested that Constantine would have done better if, when he decided to embrace it and favour its propagation, he had been content to deprive pagan cults of their official status and to allow Christianity to compete in a free field with its rivals, aided by the prestige which it would derive from the Emperor’s personal adhesion and favour. But such a policy would have been an anachronism. A state, at that time, was unthinkable without a State cult, and if an Emperor became a Christian a logical result was that Christianity should be adopted as the official religion of the Empire, and a second that the old Roman policy of toleration should be thrown overboard. In an age of superstition this was demanded not only in the interest of the Church but in the interest of the State itself. The purpose of the official cults in the pagan State was to secure the protection of the deities; these were liberal and tolerant lords who raised no objection to other forms of worship; and toleration was therefore a principle of the State. But the god of the new official religion was a jealous master; he had said, “thou shalt have none other gods before me,” and idolatry was an offence to him; how could his protection and favour be expected in a state in which idolatry was permitted? Intolerance was a duty, and the first business of a patriotic ruler was to take measures to extirpate the errors of paganism.

But these consequences were not drawn immediately. It must never be forgotten that Constantine’s revolution was perhaps the most audacious act ever committed by an autocrat in disregard and defiance of the vast majority of his subjects. For at least four-fifths of the population of the Empire were still outside the Christian Church. The army and all the leading men in the administration were devoted to paganism. It is not, therefore, surprising that Constantine, who was a statesman as well as a convert, made no attempt to force the pace. His policy did little more than indicate and prepare the way for the gradual conversion of the Empire, and was so mild and cautious that it has been maintained by some that his aim was to establish a parity between the two religions.

He retained the title of Pontifex Maximus, and thereby the constitutional right of the Emperor to supervise the religious institutions. He withdrew the support of state funds from pagan rites, but made an exception in favour of the official cults at Rome. His most important repressive measure was the prohibition of the sacrifice of victims in the temples. One reason for this measure was the dangerous practice of divination by entrails, often employed by persons who contemplated a rebellion and desired to learn from the higher powers their chances of success.

In some particular places cults were suppressed, but a pagan could still worship freely in the temples, could offer incense and make libations of wine, and might even perform sacrificial rites in a private house. The sons of Constantius were indeed inclined to adopt a stringent policy, and their laws might lead us to suppose that there was something like a severe persecution. Constantius, in reaffirming the prohibition of sacrifices, menaced transgressors with the avenging sword. But the death penalty was never inflicted, and there was a vast difference between the letter of the law and the practice. In the same edict was ordained the closing of temples “in all places and cities,” but this order can only have been carried out here and there. Its execution depended on local circumstances, and on the sentiments of the provincial governors. In some places Christian fanatics took advantage of the Imperial decree to demolish heathen shrines, and the pagans were naturally very apprehensive. When Julian visited Ilion, he inspected the antiquities under the guidance of Pegasius, who was “nominally a bishop of the Galilaeans,” but really worshipped the Sun god. He had taken orders and succeeded in becoming a bishop in order that he might have the means of protecting the heathen sanctuaries from Christian destruction.

When paganism was restored by Julian, it is probable that any temples which had been closed under the edict of Constantius were again reopened, and after his fall it would seem that they were allowed to remain open for worship, though sacrifices were regarded as unlawful.

The Emperors Valentinian I and Valens were consistently tolerant. The mysteries of Eleusis were expressly permitted, for the proconsul of Achaia told Valentinian that if they were suppressed the Greeks would find life not worth living. But a new religious policy was inaugurated by Gratian and Theodosius the Great. Gratian abandoned the title of Pontifex Maximus; he withdrew the public money which was devoted to the cults of Rome, and he ordered the altar of Victory to be removed from the Senate-house, to the deep chagrin of the senators. The fathers appealed to Valentinian II to revoke this order, and to restore the public maintenance of the religious institutions of the capital; but the moving petition of Symmachus, who was their spokesman, was overruled by the influence of Ambrose, the archbishop of Milan, who possessed the ear of Valentinian and of Theodosius.

It remained for Theodosius to inflict a far heavier blow on the ancient cults of Greece and Rome. In the earlier years of his reign the extirpation of pagan worship does not seem to have been an aim of his policy. He was only concerned to enforce obedience to the laws prohibiting sacrifices, which had evidently been widely evaded. He decided on the closing of all sanctuaries in which the law had been broken. He entrusted to Cynegius, Praetorian Prefect of the East, a pious Christian, the congenial task of executing this order in Asia and Egypt. But otherwise temples were still legally open to worshippers. It is to be particularly noted that the Emperor did not desire to destroy but only to secularise such buildings as were condemned, and the cases of barbarous demolition of splendid buildings which occurred in these years were due to the fanatical zeal of monks and ecclesiastics. Monks wrought the destruction of the great temple of Edessa, and the Serapeum at Alexandria, which gave that city “the semblance of a sacred world,” was demolished under the direction of the archbishop Theophilus (A.D. 389), who thereby dealt an effective blow to the paganism of Alexandria.

But Theodosius and his ecclesiastical advisers thought that the time was now ripe to make a clean sweep of idolatry, and in A.D. 391 and 392 laws were issued which carried to its logical conclusion the act of Constantine. We may conjecture that this drastic legislation was principally due to the influence of the archbishop of Milan. To sacrifice, whether in public or in private, was henceforward to be punished as an act of treason. Fines were imposed on any who should frequent temples or shrines; and for worshipping images with incense, for hanging sacred fillets on trees, for building altars of turf, the penalty was confiscation of the house or property where such acts were performed.

In the insurrection of A.D. 392 the restoration of paganism was a capital feature in the programme of the general Arbogastes and Eugenius the creature whom he crowned, and the lure attracted some distinguished adherents. For a short time the altar of Victory was set up in the Roman Senate-house. After the suppression of the revolt Theodosius visited Rome, attended a meeting of the Senate, and though his tone was conciliatory, his firmness compelled that body to decree the abolition of the ancient religious institutions of Rome. Some of the pagan senators had Christian families, and domestic influence may have reinforced the imperial will.

The last years of the fourth century mark an epoch in the decay of paganism. While the gods were irrevocably driven from Rome itself, time-honoured institutions of Greece also came to an end. The old oracles seem to have been silenced at a much earlier date. The “last oracle” of the Delphic god, said to have been delivered to Julian, is a sad and moving expression of the passing away of the old order of things.

Tell the king on earth has fallen the glorious dwelling,
And the water springs that spake are quenched and dead,
Not a cell is left the god, no roof, no cover;
In his hand the prophet laurel flowers no more.

The Olympian games were celebrated for the last time in A.D. 393, and the chryselephantine statue of Zeus, the greatest monument of the genius of Pheidias, was removed soon afterwards from Olympia to Constantinople. The Eleusinian mysteries ceased three years later in consequence of the injuries wrought to the sanctuaries by the invasion of Alaric. The legend that Athens was saved from the rapacity of the Goths by the appearance of Athene Promachos and the hero Achilles illustrates the vitality of pagan superstition. Athens had fared better than many other towns at the hands of the Emperors. Constantine, who ransacked Hellenic shrines for works of art in order to adorn his new capital, spared Athens; and in the reign of Theodosius, when the Samian Hera of Lysippus, the Cnidian Aphrodite of Praxiteles, the Athene of Lindos were carried off, the Parthenon was not compelled to surrender the ivory and gold Athene of Pheidias. Soon after A.D. 429 this precious work was ravished from the Acropolis, but we do not know its fate. Nor do we know at what date the Parthenon was converted into a church of the Virgin.

The ordinances of Theodosius did not, of course, avail immediately to stamp out everywhere the forbidden cults. Pagan practices still went on secretly, and in some places openly, and the government, generally perhaps yielding to ecclesiastical pressure, issued from time to time new laws to enforce the execution of the old or to supplement them. Arcadius, under the influence of Chrysostom, issued an edict to destroy, not merely to close, temples in the country and to use the material for public buildings. Chrysostom sent monks to Phoenicia to carry out the work of destruction there, but the money required was provided not by the state but by pious Christians, especially women. We have seen how bishop Porphyrius of Gaza secured with the help of the Empress Eudoxia the demolition of the temple of Marnas. As a rule the Emperors desired that the ancient sanctuaries should be preserved and turned to other uses, and we find them interfering to prevent destruction. In many country districts Christianity was only beginning to penetrate, and for the eradication of heathenism there was much missionary teaching to be done, such as was carried on by Martin in western Gaul, by Victricius, archbishop of Rouen, in the Belgic provinces, and by Nicetas of Remesiana in the Balkan highlands.

[pp. 366-371]

The Fifth Century (more or less)
Theodosius II at one time professed to believe that no pagans survived in his dominions, but this sanguine view, if it was seriously held, was premature, for in a later year he repeated the prohibition of sacrifices and ordered anew the conversion of temples into churches; and Leo I legislated severely against heathen practices. It is to be observed that this persecution differed in one important respect from the ecclesiastical persecutions of later ages in western Europe. Only pagan acts were forbidden; opinion as such was tolerated, and no restrictions were placed on the diffusion of pagan literature. Perhaps the only exception was the edict of Theodosius II shortly before his death, ordering the books of Porphyry, whose dangerous treatise Against the Christians had apparently shocked the Emperor or some of his advisers, to be burned. The same monarch had enacted that no Christian shall disturb or provoke Jews or pagans “living peaceably.” Indeed pagans could not be dispensed with in the civil service, and in the sixth century we still find them in prominent positions. Hellenism largely prevailed in the law schools, and was no bar to promotion, though it might be made a pretext for removing an official who had fallen out of favour. An able pagan, Tatian, enjoyed the confidence of the fanatical Theodosius the Great, and was appointed Praetorian Prefect of the East; and the same Emperor showed friendly regard towards spokesmen of the old religion like Libanius and Symmachus. The headquarters of unchristian doctrine, the university of Athens, was held in high esteem by Constantine and Constans, and it continued throughout the fifth century unmolested as the home of a philosophy which was the most dangerous rival of Christian theology. Pagans also received appointments in the university of Constantinople.

In a hundred years the Empire had been transformed from a state in which the immense majority of the inhabitants were devoted to pagan religions, into one in which an Emperor could say, with gross exaggeration, but without manifest absurdity, that not a pagan survived. Such a change was not brought to pass by mere prohibition and suppression. It is not too much to say that the success of the Church in converting the gentile world in the fourth and fifth centuries was due to a process which may be described as a pagan transmutation of Christianity itself. If Christian beliefs and worship had been retained unaltered in the early simplicity of their spirit and form, it may well be doubted whether a much longer period would have sufficed to christianize the Roman Empire. But the Church permitted a compromise. All the religions of the age had common ground in crude superstition, and the Church found no difficulty in proffering to converts beliefs and cults similar to those to which they had been accustomed. It was a comparatively small matter that incense, lights, and flowers, the accessories of various pagan ceremonials, had been introduced into Christian worship. It was a momentous and happy stroke to encourage the introduction of a disguised polytheism. A legion of saints and martyrs replaced the old legion of gods and heroes, and the hesitating pagan could gradually reconcile himself to a religion, which, if it robbed him of his tutelary deity, whom it stigmatized as a demon, allowed him in compensation the cult of a tutelary saint. A new and banal mythology was created, of saints and martyrs, many of them fictitious; their bodies and relics, capable of working miracles like those which used to be wrought at the tombs of heroes, were constantly being discovered. The devotee of Athene or Isis could transfer his homage to the Virgin Mother. The Greek sailor or fisherman, who used to pray to Poseidon, could call upon St. Nicolas. Those who worshipped at stone altars of Apollo on hill-tops could pay the same allegiance to St. Elias. The calendar of Christian anniversaries corresponded at many points to the calendars of Greek and Roman festivals. Men could more easily acquiesce in the loss of the heathen celebrations connected with the winter solstice and the vernal equinox, when they found the joyous celebrations of the Nativity and the resurrection associated with those seasons, and they could transfer some of their old customs to the new feasts. The date of the Nativity was fixed to coincide with the birthday of Mithras (natalis Invicti, December 25), whose religion had many affinities with the Christian. This process was not the result, in the first instance, of a deliberate policy. It was a natural development, for Christianity could not escape the influence of the ideas which were current in its environment. But it was promoted by the men of light and leading in the Church.

A particular form of miraculous healing illustrates the way in which Christianity appropriated pagan superstitions. The same dream-cures which used to be performed by Aesculapius or the Dioscuri for those who slept a night in the temple courts were still available; only the patient must resort to a sanctuary of Saints Cosmas and Damian, the new Castor and Pollux, or of the archangel Michael or some other Christian substitute. We have an interesting example of the method employed by ecclesiastical magnates in an incident which occurred in Egypt. Near Canopus there was a temple of Isis where such nocturnal cures were dispensed, and professing Christians continued to have recourse to this unhallowed aid. The Patriarch Cyril found a remedy. He discovered the bodies of two martyrs, Cyrus and John, in the church of St. Mark at Alexandria, and dislodging Isis he interred them, and dedicated a church to them, in the same place, where they freely exhibited the same mysterious medical powers which had been displayed by the great goddess.

The more highly educated pagans offered a longer and more obdurate resistance to the appeals of Christianity than the vulgar crowd. Throughout the fourth and fifth centuries they retained higher education in their hands. The schools of rhetoric, philosophy, law, and science maintained the ancient traditions and the pagan atmosphere. In their writings, some pagans frankly showed their hostility to Christianity, others affected to ignore it. We saw how they threw upon this religion the responsibility for the invasion of the barbarians. But in general their attitude was one of resignation, and they found no difficulty in serving Christian Emperors and working with Christian colleagues. This spirit of resignation is expressed in the most interesting piece we have of the poet Palladas of Alexandria, occasioned by the sight of a Hermes lying in the roadway.

At a meeting of ways I was ware of a bronze god prone at my feet,
And I knew him the offspring of Zeus, whom we prayed to of old, as was meet.
“Lord of the triple moon,” I cried, “averter of woe,
Ever a lord hast thou been, and behold, in the dust thou art low.”
But at night with a smile on his lips the god stood by me sublime,
And said, “A god though I be, I serve, and my master is Time.”

Throughout the fifth century Athens was the headquarters of what may be called higher paganism. The Stoic and Epicurean schools had died out in the third century, and in the fourth the most distinguished savants of the university like Proaeresius and Himerius were sophists, not philosophers. But the Platonic Academy continued to exist, independent of State grants, for it had its own private property producing a revenue of more than £600 a year. Its scholarchs, however, were not men of much talent or distinction, until the office was filled by Priscus, a Neoplatonist and a friend of Julian, after that Emperor’s death. Priscus inaugurated the reign of Neoplatonism at Athens; with him the revival of the university, as a centre of philosophic study, began, and vastly increased under his successor Plutarch. Towards the end of the fourth century, Synesius had spoken in disparaging words of Athens and her teachers: her fame, he said, rests with her bee-keepers.a He was jealous for the reputation of Alexandria, and with good reason, for under Plutarch and his successors Syrianus and Proclus Athens was to eclipse the Egyptian city. These Platonists attracted students from all parts of the East, and some who had begun their studies, like Proclus himself, at Alexandria, completed them at Athens.

The Athenian professors had always regarded themselves as the champions of Hellenism, but when the Neoplatonic philosophy became ascendant, the Hellenism of Athens was a more serious danger. At this time Neoplatonism was the most formidable rival of Christian theology among educated men of a speculative turn of mind. Augustine recognised this; we know how it attracted him. The Neoplatonists taught a system fundamentally differing from the current Christian theology as to the position which was assigned to the creator of the world. According to Plotinus, Nous or Reason, the creator, emanated from and was subordinate to the absolute One, and Soul again emanated from Nous. His successors developed his principles by multiplying and dividing the emanations, and the growth of the philosophy culminated in the system which Proclus constructed by means of a dialectic which Hegel himself has described as “extremely tiring.” In all these phases, the Demiurge or Creator is subordinated to the One of which no divine attributes could be predicted, and thus an apparently impassable gulf was fixed between the later Platonic philosophers and Christian theologians. There was, indeed, at Alexander another school of Platonism, which held closer here and there to the teaching of Plato himself, and men who were trained in this school found the transition to Christian doctrine comparatively easy. We know something of the system of Hierocles, a leading Platonist at Alexandria in the fifth century. In his system there was no One or any other higher principle above God the creator and legislator, who was above, and in no sense co-ordinate with, the company of sidereal gods; and he, like the Christian Deity, created the world out of nothing. Some of the pupils of Hierocles became Christians. It is a curious circumstance that Hierocles should have been condemned to exile at Constantinople on grounds which are unknown to us. It can hardly have been for his teaching, seeing that far more anti-Christian Platonists, who had their stronghold at Athens, were tolerated.

But the danger and offence of the later Neoplatonists did not lie in their mystical metaphysics, but in the theurgy and pagan practices to which they were almost always addicted. Proclus in his public lectures as scholarch confined himself, doubtless, to the interpretation of Plato in the Neoplatonic sense, and to problems of dialectic, but he reserved for his chosen disciples esoteric teaching in theurgy, and venerated the gods as beneficent beings worthy of worship, though occupying a subordinate place in the hierarchy of existences. He believed that by fasting and purifications on certain days it was possible to get into communication with supernatural beings, and he recognised the gods of other nations as well as those of Greece. He said that the philosopher should not confine himself to the religious rites of one city or people, but should be “a hierophant of the whole world.” He was more scrupulous in observing the fasts of the Egyptians than the Egyptians themselves. He had been initiated in the Eleusinian secrets by his friend Asclepigenia, the daughter of Plutarch, who had learned them from the last priest of Eleusis, and in one of his writings he told how he had seen Hecate herself. Athens believed in his magical powers; he was said to have constructed an instrument by which he could bring down rain.

The Hellenists, even in the days of Proclus, had not abandoned all hope of winning toleration for pagan worship. At any time some one might ascend the throne with Hellenic sympathies. The elevation of Anthemius in the West was a proof that this was not impossible, though Anthemius was able to do little to help the pagan interest. Proclus died in A.D. 485, and at that very time a former pupil of his was prominently associated with a rebellion which, if it had been successful, might have been followed by some temporary relaxation of the severe laws against polytheism and pagan worship. This was to be the last flutter of a dying cause.

[pp. 372-378]


Now lets jump ahead to the reign of Justinian, which lasted from 527 to 565. The following is from Chapter 22 Ecclesiastical Policy, and specifically from section 3, The Suppression of Paganism:

We saw in a former chapter how throughout the fifth century the severe laws against paganism were not very strictly enforced. So long as there was no open scandal, men could still believe in the old religions and disseminate anti-Christian doctrine. This comparatively tolerant attitude of the State terminated with the accession of Justinian, who had firmly resolved to realise the conception of an empire in which there should be no differences of religious opinion. Paganism was already dying slowly, and it seemed no difficult task to extinguish it entirely. There were two distinct forms in which it survived. In a few outlying places, and in some wild districts where the work of conversion had been imperfectly done, the population still indulged with impunity in heathen practices. To suppress these was a matter of administration, reinforced by missionary zeal; no new laws were required. A more serious problem was presented by the Hellenism which prevailed widely enough among the educated classes, and consequently in the State-service itself. To cope with this Justinian saw that there was need not only of new administrative rigour, but of new legislation. He saw that Hellenism was kept alive by pagan instructors of youth, especially in teaching establishments which had preserved the Greek tradition of education. If the evil thing was to be eradicated, he must strike at these.

Not long after his accession, he reaffirmed the penalties which previous Emperors had enacted against the pagans, and forbade all donations or legacies for the purpose of maintaining “Hellenic impiety,” while in the same constitution he enjoined upon all the civil authorities and the bishops, in Constantinople and in the provinces, to inquire into cases of pagan superstition. This law was soon followed by another which made it illegal for any persons “infected with the madness of the unholy Hellenes” to teach any subject, and thereby under the pretext of education corrupt the souls of their pupils.36

The persecution began with an inquisition at Constantinople. Many persons of the highest position were accused and condemned. Their property was confiscated, and some may have been put to death; one committed suicide. Among those who were involved were Thomas the Quaestor and Phocas, son of Craterus. But Phocas, a patrician of whose estimable character we have a portrait drawn by a contemporary, was speedily pardoned, for, as we saw, he was appointed Praetorian Prefect of the East after the Nika riot.

Some of the accused escaped by pretending to embrace the Christian faith, but we are told that “not long afterwards they were convicted of offering libations and sacrifices and other unholy practices.” There was, in fact, a second inquisition in A.D. 546. On this occasion a heretic was set to catch the pagan. Through the zeal of John of Ephesus, a Monophysite, who was head of a Syrian monastery in the suburb of Sycae, a large number of senators, “with a crowd of grammarians, sophists, lawyers, and physicians,” were denounced, not without the use of torture, and suffered whippings and imprisonment. Then “they were given to the churches to be instructed in the Christian faith.” One name is mentioned: Phocas, a rich and powerful patrician, who, knowing that he had been denounced, took poison. The Emperor ordered that he should be buried like an ass without any rites. We may suspect that this was the same Phocas, son of Craterus, who had been involved in the earlier inquest and knew that death would be the penalty of his relapse. There was yet another pagan scandal in the capital in A.D. 559; the condemned were exposed to popular derision in a mock procession and their books publicly burned.41

It may be considered certain that in all cases the condemned were found guilty of actual heathen practices, for instance of sacrificing or pouring libations in their private houses, on the altars of pagan deities. Men could still cling to pagan beliefs, provided they did not express their faith in any overt act. There were many distinguished people of this kind in the highest circles at Constantinople, many lawyers and literary men, whose infidelity was well known and tolerated. The great jurist Tribonian, who was in high favour with the Emperor, was an eminent example. He seems to have made no pretence at disguising his opinions, but others feigned to conform to the State religion. We are told that John the Cappadocian used sometimes to go to church at night, but he went dressed in a rough cloak like an old pagan priest, and instead of behaving as a Christian worshipper he used to mumble impious words the whole night.

It can hardly be doubted that by making the profession of orthodoxy a necessary condition for public teaching Justinian accelerated the extinction of “Hellenism.” Pagan traditions and a pagan atmosphere were still maintained, not only in the schools of philosophy, but in the schools of law, not only at Athens, but at Alexandria, Gaza, and elsewhere. The suppression of all law schools, except those of Constantinople and Berytus, though not intended for this purpose, must have affected the interests of paganism. But philosophical teaching was the great danger, and Athens was the most notorious home of uncompromising Hellenists. After the death of Proclus (A.D. 485) the Athenian university declined, but there were teachers of considerable metaphysical ability, such as Simplicius and Damascius, the last scholarch, whose attainments can still be judged by their works.

The edicts of Justinian sounded the doom of the Athenian schools, which had a continuous tradition since the days of Plato and Aristotle. We do not know exactly what happened in A.D. 529. We may suppose that the teachers were warned that unless they were baptized and publicly embraced Christianity, they would no longer be permitted to teach; and that when they refused, the property of the schools was confiscated and their means of livelihood withdrawn.

This event had a curious sequel. Some of the philosophers whose occupation was gone resolved to cast the dust of the Christian Empire from their feet and migrate to Persia. Of these the most illustrious were Damascius, the last scholarch of the Academy, Simplicius, and Priscian. The names of four others are mentioned, but we do not know whether they had taught at Athens or at some other seat of learning. These men had heard that king Chosroes was interested in philosophy, and they hoped, protected by his favour and supported by his generosity, to end their days in a more enlightened country than their own. But they were disappointed. Chosroes was flattered by their arrival and begged them to remain. But they soon found the strange conditions of life intolerable. They fell homesick, and felt that they would prefer death on Roman soil to the highest honours the Persian could confer. And so they returned. But the king did them a great service. In his treaty with Justinian in A.D. 532 he stipulated that they should not be molested or forced to embrace the Christian faith. We are told that they lived comfortably for the rest of their lives, and we know that Simplicius was still writing philosophical works in the later years of Justinian.

In western Asia Minor, in the provinces of Asia, Phrygia, Lydia, and Caria, there was still a considerable survival of pagan cults, not only in the country regions, but in some of the towns, for instance in Tralles. In A.D. 542 John of Ephesus, the Monophysite whose activity in hunting down the Hellenes at Constantinople has already been noticed, was sent as a missionary to these provinces to convert the heathen and to put an end to idolatrous practices. He tells us in his Ecclesiastical History that he converted 70,000 souls. The temples were destroyed; 96 churches and 12 monasteries were founded. Justinian paid for the baptismal vestments of the converts and gave each a small sum of money (about 4s.).

In Egypt, in the oasis of Augila, the temple dedicated to Zeus Ammon and Alexander the Great still stood, and sacrifices were still offered. Justinian put an end to this worship and built a church to the Mother of God. At Philae the cult of Osiris and Isis had been permitted to continue undisturbed. This toleration was chiefly due to the fact that the Blemyes and Nobadae, the southern neighbours of Egypt, had a vested interest in the temples by virtue of a treaty which they had made with Diocletian. Every year they came down the river to worship Isis in the island of Elephantine; and at fixed times the image of the goddess was brought back to the temple. Justinian would tolerate this indulgence no longer. Early in his reign he sent Narses the Persarmenian to destroy the sanctuaries. The priests were arrested and the divine images sent to Constantinople. Much about the same time the Christian conversion of the Nobadae and Blemyes began.

Justinian was undoubtedly successful in hastening the disappearance of open heathen practices and in suppressing anti-Christian philosophy. Although in some places, like Heliopolis, paganism may have survived for another generation, and although there were inquisitions under his immediate successors, it may be said that by the close of the sixth century the old faiths were virtually extinct throughout the Empire.

[pp. 367-372]

Christian on Christian Violence

The above passages all focus on Christian efforts to extirpate Paganism. Christians were equally concerned with imposing monolithic conformity within their own ranks, and Bury did not neglect that topic, either. Here, in its entirety, is Chapter 11, section 4, The Persecution of Heresy:

The persecution of heretics was more resolute and severe than the persecution of pagans. Those who stood outside of the Church altogether were less dangerous than those members of it who threatened to corrupt it by false doctrine, and the unity of the Catholic faith in matters of dogma was considered of supreme importance. “Truth, which is simple and one,” wrote Pope Leo I, “does not admit of variety.” A modern inquirer is accustomed to regard the growth of heresies as a note of vitality, but in old times it was a sign of the active operation of the enemy of mankind.

The heresy which was looked upon as the most dangerous and abominable of all was that of the Manichees, which it would be truer to regard as a rival religion than as a form of Christianity. It was based on a mixture of Zoroastrian and Christian ideas, along with elements derived from Buddhism, but the Zoroastrian principles were preponderant. This religion was founded by Manes in Persia in the third century, and in the course of the fourth it spread throughout the Empire, in the West as well as in the East. Augustine in his youth came under its influence. The fundamental doctrine was that of Zoroaster, the existence of a good and an evil principle, God and Matter, independent of each other. The Old Testament was the work of the Evil Being. Matter being thoroughly evil, Jesus Christ could not have invested himself with it, and therefore his human body was a mere appearance. The story of his life in the Gospels was interpreted mystically. The Manichees had no churches, no altars, no incense; their worship consisted in prayers and hymns; they did not celebrate Christmas, and their chief festival was the Bêma, in March, kept in memory of the death of their founder, who was said to have been flayed alive or crucified by Varahran I. They condemned marriage, and practised rigorous austerities.

The laws against the Manichees, which were frequent and drastic, began in the reign of Theodosius I. The heresy was insidious, because the heretics were difficult to discover; they often took part in Christian ceremonies and passed for orthodox, and they disguised their views under other names. Theodosius deprived them of civil rights and banished them from towns. Those who sheltered themselves under harmless names were liable to the penalty of death; and he ordered the Praetorian Prefect of the East to institute “inquisitors” for the purpose of discovering them. This is a very early instance of the application of this word, which in later ages was to become so offensive, to the uses of religious persecution. When the government of Theodosius II, under the influence of Nestorius, made a vigorous effort to sweep heresy from the world, the Manichaeans were stigmatised as men who had “descended to the lowest depths of wickedness,” and were condemned anew to be expelled from towns, and perhaps to be put to death (A.D. 428). Later legislation inflicted death unreservedly; they were the only heretics whose opinions exposed them to the supreme penalty.

Arcadius, at the beginning of his reign, reaffirmed all the pains and prohibitions which his predecessors had enacted against heretics. In most cases, this meant the suppression of their services and assemblies and ordinations. The Eunomians, an extreme branch of the Arians, who held that the Son was unlike the Father, were singled out for more severe treatment and deprived of the right of executing testaments. This disability, however, was afterwards withdrawn, and it was finally enacted that a Eunomian could not bequeath property to a fellow-heretic. Thus there was a certain vacillation in the policy of the government, caused by circumstances and influences which we cannot trace.

The combined efforts of Church and State were successful in virtually stamping out Arianism, which after the end of the fourth century ceased to be a danger to ecclesiastical unity. They were also successful ultimately in driving Nestorianism out of the Empire. The same policy, applied to the Monophysitic heresy, failed. Marcian’s law of A.D. 455 against the Eutychians was severe enough. They were excluded from the service of the State; they were forbidden to publish books criticising the Council of Chalcedon; and their literature, like that of the Nestorians, was condemned to be burned. But in Syria, where anti-Greek feelings were strong, and in Egypt, where national sentiment was beginning to associate itself with a religious symbol, all attempts to impose uniformity were to break down.

The severe measures taken by the State against the Donatists in Africa were chiefly due to their own fanaticism. Donatism was not properly a heresy, it was a schism, which had grown out of a double election to the see of Carthage in A.D. 311, and the question at issue between the Catholics and the Donatists was one of church discipline. We need not follow the attempts of Constantine and Constans to restore unity to the African church by military force. The cause of the Donatists was not recommended by their association with the violent madmen known as Circumcellions, who disdained death themselves, and inflicted the most cruel deaths on their opponents. The schismatics survived the persecution. At the death of Theodosius I the greater number of the African churches seem to have been in their hands, and during the usurpation of Gildo they persecuted the Catholics. When Augustine became bishop of Hippo, where the Donatists were in a great majority, he set himself the task of restoring ecclesiastical unity in Africa by conciliation. He and the Catholic clergy had some success in making converts, but the fanatics were so infuriated by these desertions that with their old allies the Circumcellions they committed barbarous outrages upon the Catholic clergy and churches; Augustine himself barely escaped from being waylaid. Such disorders demanded the intervention of the secular power. Some injured bishops presented themselves at Ravenna, and in A.D. 405 Honorius condemned the Donatists to severe penalties by several laws intended “to extirpate the adversaries of the Catholic faith.”

The Donatists rejoiced at the death of Stilicho whom they regarded as the author of these laws, and disorders broke out afresh. When Alaric was in south Italy threatening Rome, the Emperor revoked his decrees and soon afterwards, at the request of the Catholics, he convoked a conference of the bishops of the two parties which met at Carthage (A.D. 411) under the presidency of Marcellinus, one of the “tribunes and notaries” whom the Emperors employed for special services. Marcellinus was empowered not only to act as chairman but to judge between the rival claims. The appointment of a secular official to adjudicate did not mean that the civil power claimed to settle questions of doctrine. The controversy, which originally turned on a dispute about facts, had throughout concerned the government not in its ecclesiastical aspect but as a cause of grave disorders and disturbances. But the commission entrusted to Marcellinus shows that the bishop of Rome was not yet recognised as possessing the jurisdiction which in later times resided in his see. At the end of the discussions, Marcellinus decided against the Donatists; they were allowed a certain time to come into the Church. Some were convinced, but others appealed to the Emperor, who confirmed the decision of his deputy and enacted a new law against the schismatics, imposing heavy fines on the recalcitrants, and banishing the clergy. Two years later they were deprived of civil rights. These strong measures, which Augustine defended, alleging the text “Compel them to come in,” broke the strength of the schismatics, and though the Donatist sect continued to exist and was tolerated under the Vandals, it ceased to be of importance.

It must be allowed that if the government had been perfectly indifferent and impartial in matters of religion, it would have had ample excuse for adopting severe measures of repression against the fanatical sect who disturbed the peace of the African provinces and persecuted their opponents. The penalties were severe but they stopped short of death. It should be remembered to the credit of the Emperors that, in contrast with the Christian princes of later ages, they never proposed, in pursuing their policy of the suppression of heresy, to inflict the capital penalty, except in the case of the Manichaeans, who were regarded as almost outside the pale of humanity. The same may be said for the leading and representative ecclesiastics, all of whom would have recoiled with horror if they could have foreseen the system of judicial murder which was one day to be established under the auspices of the Roman see. Martin of Tours did all he could to stay the persecution of the Spanish bishop Priscillian, who, rightly or wrongly, was accused of heresies akin to Manichaeanism. Priscillian was put to death by the Emperor Maximus (A.D. 385), but he was tried before a civil tribunal for a secular offence. It may well have been a miscarriage of justice, but, formally at least, he was not executed as a heretic.

Under the Christian Empire the Jews remained for the most part in possession of the privileges which they had before enjoyed. The Church was unable to persuade the State to introduce measures to suppress their worship or banish them from the Empire. They were forbidden to possess Christian slaves, and a law of Theodosius II excluded them from civil offices and dignities. But the legislator was perhaps more often concerned to protect them than to impinge upon their freedom.

[pp. 378-383]

I hope that this material from J.B. Bury (along with the more briefly noted supporting material from recent scholarship discussed at the very beginning of this post) will help at least some people to better understand just how idiotic it is when people (like Stephen Mitchell) claim that the transition from Pagan polytheism to Christian monotheism was “tidy“!!

Revolutionary Continuity: Atenism, Judaism, Christianity and the Rise of Islam

Is it justifiable to locate Islam within the wider context of Revolutionary Monotheism? Even more to the point: does the violence and intolerance of Islam flow from it’s monotheism, and is the monotheism of Muhammad of a piece with that of Akhenaten, Moses and Constantine?

In the Introduction to the second edition of his The Rise of Western Christendom (also see the BMCR review of the first edition here) renowned scholar of late antiquity Peter Brown writes:

Islam did not come out of nowhere. Nor did it instantly blot out all that had come before it … Islam emerged in an Arabian environment thoroughly penetrated by Christian and Jewish ideas.
[p. 3]

In fact, the world in which Muhammad lived was one in which whole communities of Arabs had already converted to either Christianity or Judaism. Yemen, for example, at the southernmost reaches of the Arabian peninsula, was already “conquered” by Christianity, as Brown puts it, before Muhammad was born, but this did not take place until after

the pros and cons of Christianity and Judaism had been hotly debated, in Arabic and in a manner which resounded throughout the Arab world.
[p. 288]

Brown even points out that such a free and open exchange of different religious ideas “would have been unthinkable in the orthodox empire of Justinian”!! This free and open discussion of religious ideas was not limited to Yemen in the south and the frontiers of Rome and Persia to the north, but was ongoing throughout the Arabian peninsula:

Some tribes of central Arabia had adopted Judaism. Others, such as the Banu Ghassan, were known for their Christianity. Religious differences were part of the ceaseless battle for prestige between the tribes. Faced by an open world, already polarized between Jews and Christians, Persians and East Romans, the dominant family of Mecca, the Quryash, were proud to remain frank idolaters. In a world where Jews and Christians, and even the great empires of the Near East, had come uncomfortably close, they thought it best to stand to one side and wait. Not so Muhammad. In 610, at the age of 40, the visions began to come. They came from the One God (in Arabic: Allah), “the Lord of the Worlds”. For the next 20 years the messages came irregularly, in sudden shattering moments, up to his death in 632. In them, so Muhammad believed, the same God who had spoken to Moses and to Jesus, and to many thousands of humbler prophets, now spoke again, once and for all, to himself. Vivid sequences of these words from God were carefully memorized by Muhammad’s followers. They were passed on by skilled reciters throughout the Arabic-speaking world. For these were nothing less than snatches of the voice of God himself speaking to the Arabs through Muhammad….

What Muhammad recited was … a direct rendering of the eloquence of God as he spoke to the human race. This God had never ceased , throughout the ages, to “call out” to all nations, through his many prophets. Now this voice repeated itself, in Arabic, in a final and majestically definitive summation.

it was this aspect of the Quran which instantly offended Jews and Christians. For the messages relayed by God through Muhammad claimed to undo the past. His messages declared that neglect and partisan strife had caused Jews and Christians to slip away from, even to distort, the messages which they had once received from their prophets, Moses and Jesus….

The name adopted by the new religion, “Islam”, and the word used to describe its adherents,“Muslims“, came from the same Arabic root, slm — to surrender, to trust in one God. It summed up an entire view of history. It was a history where, in what truly mattered for human beings — that is, their relationship with God — nothing had ever changed. Islam and Muslims had always existed. In all past ages, trust in God and the rejection of all other worship had invariably distinguished true monotheists from ignorant polytheists. God had fostered this monotheism by sending his prophets to the Jews and to the Christians….
[pp. 290-291]

(In)Tolerance and Coercion in Islam

Quran 2:256:

There is no compulsion at all in religion; undoubtedly the right path has become very distinct from error; and whoever rejects faith in the devil (false deities) and believes in Allah has grasped a very firm handhold; it will never loosen; and Allah is All Hearing, All Knowing.

Quran 9:5:

Then when the sacred months have passed, slay the polytheists wherever you find them, and catch them and make them captive, and wait in ambush for them at every place; then if they repent and keep the prayer established and pay the charity, leave their way free; indeed Allah is Oft Forgiving, Most Merciful.

Quran 48:16:

Say to the ignorant who stayed behind, “You will soon be called against a nation of great military strength – to fight against them or that they become Muslims; so if you obey, Allah will give you an excellent reward; and if you turn away, the way you had turned away before, He will mete out a painful punishment to you.”

Quran 109:

Proclaim, O disbelievers! Neither do I worship what you worship. Nor do you worship Whom I worship. And neither will I ever worship what you worship. Nor will you worship Whom I worship. For you is your religion, and for me is mine.
Below are excerpts from Tolerance and Coercion in Islam, by Yohanan Friedmann. They are all taken from Chapter 3 of that book, which is titled Is there no compulsion in religion?
Early Muslim compendia of hadith include a number of traditions according to which the Prophet decided to expel all non-Muslims from the Arabian peninsula ….
[p. 90]
Quran 2:256, which serves as the motto for the present chapter, has become the locus classicus for the discussion of religious tolerance in Islam. According to the ‘circumstances of revelation‘ (abasid al-nuzul) literature, it was revealed — surprisingly enough — in connection with the expulsion of the Jewish tribe of Banu Nadir from Medina in 4 A.H./625 A.D. This expulsion was part of the process by which the Muslims established their dominance in the city. In contradistinction to Quran 109:6, which seems to reflect a Muslim plea against religious coercion practiced against the early Muslims by the Meccan unbelievers, Quran 2:256 appears to be addressing the Muslims themselves. The interpretation of the verse is, however, not without its share of problems. We may legitimately understand it as denying the feasibility of coercion in matters of religion rather than a command to refrain from it….

On the other hand, the Quran contain numerous verses enjoining jihad, which is routinely described as being fought “in the way of God” (fi sabil Allah) and is, in some cases, relevant to the issue of religious freedom. It is well known that the Quranic material on jihad is not consistent …. Perhaps the most famous jihad verse demands the submission of the People of the Book and their payment of jizya. It requires the People of the Book to humble themselves before the Muslims and to pay a discriminatory tax, but it does not instruct Muslims to convert their vanquished enemies in a forcible manner.

Several other verses view the war waged by the Muslims as having a clearly religious goal of killing the unbelievers or expanding the Muslim faith. These are verses which call upon the Muslims to kill the polytheists. The ‘verse of the sword’ (ayat al-sayf, Quran 9:5) enjoins Muslims to ‘slay the idolators wherever you find them, and take them and confine them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush.” Only if they “repent, and perform the prayer and pay the alms” will they be left alone. Quran 48:16 may also be understood in this way: the expression tuqatilunahum aw yuslimun may refer to conversion to Islam, or to a military surrender. Thus both verses may indicate that the conversion of the enemies to Islam is the purpose of the war and the condition for its cessation. Two verses maintain that the war is being waged in order to achieve religious uniformity, while Quran 3:89 enunciates the principle that whoever desires a religion other than Islam, it will not be accepted from him.
[pp. 94-5]
Quran 109 is understood to represent an uncompromising response to a Meccan offer of compromise: the leaders of Quraysh are said to have suggested to the Prophet the creation of a religion consisting of elements from their own beliefs as well as that of Islam. Needless to say, the idea of such a composite religion is preposterous from the point of view of Islam after it’s nascent period. The Sura is unequivocal in its rejection of Meccan shirk [polytheism], but it does not demand any action designed to effect its rejection.
[p. 95]
Quran 48:16, revealed after the Hudaybiyya treaty of 628, is also relevant to our discussion: “You will be called against a people possessed of great might, to fight them or they surrender” …. This verse poses two questions of interpretation: who are the peopel against whom the fighting will be waged, and what will be the purpose of the war. If yuslimun is taken in its usual Quranic sense of exclusive submission to Allah which is identical with conversion to Islam, the enemies are polytheists: various tribes against whom the Prophet himself fought … this interpretation of the verse seems to be, historically, the only possible one. In this case, the declared purpose of fighting is to bring about the conversion of the enemy and to accelerate the process of achieving religious uniformity in the Arabian peninsula.
[p. 97]
I think it is highly instructive to compare all of the above to what one finds in the Rock Edicts of Asoka (the Buddhist King who ruled most of the Indian subcontinent eight centuries before Muhammad was born):
Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi [King Asoka], honors both ascetics and the householders of all religions, and he honors them with gifts and honors of various kinds. But Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, does not value gifts and honors as much as he values this — that there should be growth in the essentials of all religions. Growth in essentials can be done in different ways, but all of them have as their root restraint in speech, that is, not praising one’s own religion, or condemning the religion of others without good cause. And if there is cause for criticism, it should be done in a mild way. But it is better to honor other religions for this reason. By so doing, one’s own religion benefits, and so do other religions, while doing otherwise harms one’s own religion and the religions of others. Whoever praises his own religion, due to excessive devotion, and condemns others with the thought “Let me glorify my own religion,” only harms his own religion. Therefore contact (between religions) is good. One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others. Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, desires that all should be well-learned in the good doctrines of other religions.

Muhammad (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Four)

The reign of Constantine (ca 227 – 337 AD) was certainly a great leap forward for revolutionary monotheism. But the spread of Christianity was still limited to those areas already ruled by Rome or already within Rome’s sphere of influence. Constantinian Christianity represented the wedding of monotheism with an already established empire – basically a successful implementation of Akhenaten’s dream but on a significantly larger scale.

Muhammad (ca 570 – 632 AD) and his followers, however, more closely resembled Moses and the children of Israel, than Constantine and his Bishops. The Arab Muslims roared out of the desert to build a theocratic Empire from scratch. Of course these days we’re all supposed to pretend that Muhammad organized his followers into door-to-door canvassing teams to spread Islam by engaging in peaceful interfaith dialogues grounded in mutual respect and sensitivity to cultural differences, or some such shyte. Obviously no one, with the possible exception of Karen Armstrong, actually believes that. Certainly no Muslims believe it, no matter how much they might want others to believe it!

But as impressive as the more muscular and aggressive Islamic upstart might appear alongside the more established and complacent Christianity, it is nevertheless the case that much of Islam’s initial growth amounted to poaching on the southern extremes of the Asian and African portions of the Roman Empire.

At first the core of the Eastern Roman Empire (aka, the Byzantine Empire) was able to hold the Islamic expansion at bay, but the Ottomans eventually engulfed not only Byzantium, but all of southeastern Europe as well. The city of Budapest, for example, came under Ottoman rule for 140 years. But it wasn’t until it extended to the east, and especially into India and Southeast Asia that Islam was really conquering significant new ground for revolutionary monotheism, (and, very importantly, ground that it would be able to hold onto, unlike Spain and southeastern Europe).

India’s first major contact with Islam came during the 17 year long campaign of predatory raids under the direction of the Sultan Mahmud of Gazhni, starting in 997. The relationship between India and Islam is long and complex, but what began with Mahmud’s raids eventually led to the Muslim conquest of most of the Indian subcontinent under the Mughal Empire. India also served as a way station for the expansion of Islam into Southeast Asia. Today, South, Central and Southeast Asia account for half of the Muslim population of the world, and are home to the top four countries in terms of total Muslim population (Indonesia 207M, Pakistan 167M, India 156M, Bangladesh 140M).

“The Mohammedan Conquest of India is probably the bloodiest story in history.” So begins chapter 6 of volume I (there are eleven volumes!) of Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization, titled simply The Moslem Conquest of India. The Durants were not Neoconservative Republican boosters for the War On Terror, seeking to whip up xenophobic anti-Muslim hysteria. In fact, Will and Ariel were nice young left-leaning intellectuals when they met and fell in love at the neo-anarchistic Ferrer Modern School in New York City in 1912. They soon moved away from more radical leftist politics, by the standards of the time, but nevertheless stayed true to what Ariel Durant called a “sentimental, idealizing blend of love, philosophy, Christianity, and socialism“. They were also the authors of the Declaration of Interdependence in 1945, which reads in part:

That differences of race, color, and creed are natural, and that diverse groups, institutions, and ideas are stimulating factors in the development of man;

That to promote harmony in diversity is a responsible task of religion and statesmanship;

That since no individual can express the whole truth, it is essential to treat with understanding and good will those whose views differ from our own;

That by the testimony of history intolerance is the door to Violence, brutality and dictatorship; and

That the realization of human interdependence and solidarity is the best guard of civilization.

21st century progressives and leftists are so brain-addled by their addiction to identity politics that they would never dare cast aspersions on Muslims for their history of using violence to spread their religion. Why, all right-thinking modern day progressives and leftists see the entire history of human civilization as nothing but one imperialist horror story after another, so it would be downright unfair to single out the poor Muslims! Those who adopt this view don’t seem to realize that, unlike the Durants and other more sensible lefties of a bygone era before “political correctness” ran amok, they are just mindlessly repeating the Christians’ own favorite defense for their historically well documented penchant for using violence to impose their religion on others: “everyone else does it!”

Not only is this excuse transparently infantile it also has the further disadvantage of being completely untrue. One of the most important aspects of Jan Assmann’s theory of “revolutionary monotheism” is that it helps us see that religious conflict is not so deeply rooted in human society as it might now appear to be (after 1700 years of revolutionary monotheism in power). In particular, religious conflict played little of no part in human history when polytheism held sway (that is, for the first several thousand years of human civilization). This obviously does not mean that there was an absence of all conflicts (or that those conflicts were somehow any less bloody or brutal), but it is not insignificant that religious diversity and toleration were ubiquitous features of human civilization until 1700 years ago.

What is perhaps most mind boggling of all (that is, to those who have become convinced that theocracy and intolerance are the general rule) is that the polytheistic religions of different cultures in the ancient (pre-Christian) world shared a common “cosmotheism” (as Jan Assman has called it) that actually encouraged a cosmopolitan world-view, a point of view that transcends narrow ethnocentrism by promoting the concept of a single human family in which we are all the “children of the Gods”.

The cosmotheistic world view continues to be found in Hinduism, Buddhism, and the other non-monotheistic religious traditions that are still followed by 1/3 of humanity (thank the Gods). This simple truth has been greatly (and to a large extent intentionally) obscured, especially in the post-9/11 world, in which we are expected to choose between the equally unedifying views of Sam Harris and Karen Armstong:

According to Sam Harris all religions are fundamentally evil. Fundamentalism and terrorism are not aberrations, but rather the predictable results from adherence to the violent, delusional ravings that comprise all religious teachings.

According to Karen Armstrong all religions are fundamentally good. Fundamentalism and terrorism are tragic aberrations resulting from religious people straying far from the core of reason and compassion at the heart of all religious teachings.

Both of these views are profoundly ahistorical. But they are extremely attractive for many people for a variety or reasons, not the least of which is their hypersimplicity. But clearly all religions are not the same when it comes to violence and intolerance. In particular we can (and we must) differentiate between two kinds of religions: (1) religions that have a consistent track record of intolerance and have relied heavily on forced conversions for their spread, and (2) religions in which intolerance and forced conversions truly are aberrations, if they are found at all. Here is how Jan Assmann explained it in his Moses the Egyptian:

Does not every religion quite automatically put everything outside itself in the position of error and falsehood and look down on other religions as “paganism”? Is this not quite simply the religious expression of ethnocentricity? Does not the distinction between true and false in reality amount to nothing other than the distinction between “us” and “them”? Does not every construction of identity by the very same process generate alterity? Does not every religion produce “pagans” in the same way that every civilization produces “barbarians”?

However plausible this may seem, it is not the case. Cultures not only generate otherness by constructing identity, but also develop techniques of translation. We have to distinguish here between the “real other,” who is always there beyond the individual and independent of the individual’s constructions of selfhood and otherhood, and the “construction of other,” who is the shadow of the individual’s identity. Moreover, we have to realize that in most cases we are dealing not with the “real other,” but with our constructions and projections of the other. “Paganism” and “idolatry” belong to such constructions of the other. It is this inevitable construction of cultural otherness that is to a certain degree compensated by techniques of translation. Translation in this sense is not to be confused with the colonializing appropriation of the “real” other. It is simply an attempt to make more transparent the borders that were erected by cultural distinctions.

Ancient polytheisms functioned as such a technique of translations. They belong within the emergence of the “Ancient World” as a coherent ecumene of interconnected nations. The polytheistic religions overcame the primitive ethnocentrism of tribal religions by distinguishing several deities by name, shape, and function.

No matter how Karen Armstrong and Al-Jazeera try to spin things, everyone knows that Muslim nations today still crudely reflect their theocratic origins in a far more obvious (and honest) way than modern Christian nations do (all European nation-states were originally Christian theocracies, and most still have vestiges, or more, of that heritage). On that much even I can agree with Sam Harris.

First and foremost, Islamic countries have little or no religious freedom — as a general rule they have even less religious freedom than the People’s Republic of China! Take Egypt for example, a nation “friendly” with the West and with a large Christian minority. Here is a recent quote from an Egyptian cleric (Sheikh Gad al-Ibrahim) concerning Mohammed Hegazy, a convert from Islam to Christianity: “The Egyptian government should find Mohammed Hegazy and apply shari’a, giving him three days to reconvert and then killing him if he refuses”.

Here is a quote from Mohammed Hegazy’s father: “I am going to try to talk to my son and convince him to return to Islam. If he refuses, I am going to kill him with my own hands.”

Here is a quote from an Egyptian judge Muhammad Husseini, in February, 2008, concerning Hegazy’s case: “He can believe whatever he wants in his heart, but on paper he can’t convert.

Hegazy’s case is unusual only because most Egyptians, or citizens of any other Muslim nation, would never even challenge the system as Hegazy has.

I’ll end with some illustrative translations from the Sahih Bukhari, concerning capital punishment for the crime of apostasy. The Sahih Bukhari is one of the most important collections of “tradition” (hadith) texts for Sunni Muslims.

Volume 4, Book 52, Number 260:
Narrated Ikrima:

Ali burnt some people and this news reached Ibn ‘Abbas, who said, “Had I been in his place I would not have burnt them, as the Prophet said, ‘Don’t punish (anybody) with Allah’s Punishment.’ No doubt, I would have killed them, for the Prophet said, ‘If somebody (a Muslim) discards his religion, kill him.’

Volume 9, Book 83, Number 17:
Narrated ‘Abdullah:

Allah’s Apostle said, “The blood of a Muslim who confesses that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that I am His Apostle, cannot be shed except in three cases: In Qisas for murder, a married person who commits illegal sexual intercourse and the one who reverts from Islam (apostate) and leaves the Muslims.

Volume 9, Book 84, Number 57:
Narrated ‘Ikrima:

Some Zanadiqa (atheists) were brought to ‘Ali and he burnt them. The news of this event, reached Ibn ‘Abbas who said, “If I had been in his place, I would not have burnt them, as Allah’s Apostle forbade it, saying, ‘Do not punish anybody with Allah’s punishment (fire).’ I would have killed them according to the statement of Allah’s Apostle, ‘Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him.’

Volume 9, Book 84, Number 58:
Narrated Abu Burda:

Abu Musa said, “I came to the Prophet along with two men (from the tribe) of Ash’ariyin, one on my right and the other on my left, while Allah’s Apostle was brushing his teeth (with a Siwak), and both men asked him for some employment. The Prophet said, ‘O Abu Musa (O ‘Abdullah bin Qais!).’ I said, ‘By Him Who sent you with the Truth, these two men did not tell me what was in their hearts and I did not feel (realize) that they were seeking employment.’ As if I were looking now at his Siwak being drawn to a corner under his lips, and he said, ‘We never (or, we do not) appoint for our affairs anyone who seeks to be employed. But O Abu Musa! (or ‘Abdullah bin Qais!) Go to Yemen.'” The Prophet then sent Mu’adh bin Jabal after him and when Mu’adh reached him, he spread out a cushion for him and requested him to get down (and sit on the cushion). Behold: There was a fettered man beside Abu Muisa. Mu’adh asked, “Who is this (man)?” Abu Muisa said, “He was a Jew and became a Muslim and then reverted back to Judaism.” Then Abu Muisa requested Mu’adh to sit down but Mu’adh said, “I will not sit down till he has been killed. This is the judgment of Allah and His Apostle (for such cases)” and repeated it thrice. Then Abu Musa ordered that the man be killed, and he was killed. Abu Musa added, “Then we discussed the night prayers and one of us said, ‘I pray and sleep, and I hope that Allah will reward me for my sleep as well as for my prayers.'”

Volume 9, Book 89, Number 271:
Narrated Abu Musa:

A man embraced Islam and then reverted back to Judaism. Mu’adh bin Jabal came and saw the man with Abu Musa. Mu’adh asked, “What is wrong with this (man)?” Abu Musa replied, “He embraced Islam and then reverted back to Judaism.” Mu’adh said, “I will not sit down unless you kill him (as it is) the verdict of Allah and His Apostle .”

[Here are three books by Sita Ram Goel for further reading on the subject of Islam in Indian history — they are all available complete (and for free) online at the Voice of Dharma website:
Defense of Hindu Society
Heroic Hindu Resistance to Muslim Invaders (636 to 1206 AD)
Hindu Temples: What Happened to Them?]

See also (links NOT automatically generated):
Constantine (A brief history of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Three)
Moses (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Two)

Akhenaten (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part One)
Monotheistic Robots of Doom, Part Deux
Monotheistic Robots of Doom
Lies, Damned Lies, and Pagan Monotheism
Hic Sunt Dracones